Lessons: Yom Kippur AM Sermon 2019, 5780

Yom Kippur Morning 5780
October 9, 2019
Cantor David Reinwald


Take a moment to think about the most important lesson or advice that was ever given to you.  Was it in a class?  Was it from a teacher, a mentor, or a family member?  Was it something you took away from a profound life experience?  And, who would you be if you had not learned that lesson?  Now, let’s think about the flipside.  Was there a moment where you became the teacher?  Did you impart a lesson or something you knew based on your own experience to someone who looked to you for advice or inspiration?  Were you fully present for that person in that moment?  What did it feel like?  How important are those moments either in our own lives or in the lives of others connected to us when we witness moments of climbing higher, overcoming obstacles, surpassing goals, and finding our greatest potential?

Many years ago, I walked into a classroom in Woodburn Hall, where many of the language classes taught at my alma mater, Indiana University, were held.  I looked around, seeing several familiar faces in the nearly packed class.  I couldn’t believe that this many people were here to study Biblical Hebrew…?  I had been told it would be a challenging class.  I looked toward the front of the class and saw a bald man of Chinese descent with a long stringy goatee sitting at the front desk.  He sat there very quietly, and I took one of the last remaining seats.  Those that trickled in thereafter had to stand against the wall.

The man at the front got up and began our class, and introduced himself as Ah-Seng Choo.  He was our instructor and I would later learn that he was an ABD, all but dissertation, on fairly permanent leave from none other than Harvard.  This man would prove to be absolutely brilliant.  Ah-Seng, as he instructed us to call him, had such a presence in the classroom.  On this very first day, he smiled at us with a mysterious glance, handing out a piece of paper that looked like it had been copied again and again.  There was no Hebrew on the page.  Do you see the cow?  Huh?  I think there were a few giggles.  No, this wasn’t an initial lesson on how to say parah, cow in Hebrew.  And, with this picture in black and white, the same one you received when you came into services today, I am pretty sure we weren’t now being presented with the parah adumah, the red heifer.  So, what was all of this about?  I stared at the fuzzy looking paper.  All around me, people started announcing that they saw it.  Minutes went by.  All I saw was some blurry, Rorschach looking ink blot type of image.  Now, nearly the entire class had found the cow.  Someone pointed it out to me against Ah-Seng’s judgment.  He said, “You can’t show someone the cow.  They have to see it for themselves.”  I still didn’t see it.  I was getting frustrated.  Ah-Seng explained that in Biblical Hebrew, we were going to deal with countless details.  But, if you didn’t continually see the bigger picture, you would only understand the minute.  The mechanics are important to skill, but full understanding requires one to see the entire picture.  The cow started to come into focus.  There it was!  Now, I couldn’t not see it.

Ah-Seng had a passion for what he taught.  And, there was a lot of highly detailed work we had to do every week.  My hand would hurt after the hours of writing out Biblical Hebrew in block print, and in pencil, lest the many mistakes I would make and need to erase. Then, there were the countless hours spent translating chapters of text.  I would sit there with my concordance, a semi-dictionary that lists each and every occurrence of a word based off of its root — and to understand how to translate the words properly, you had to reduce the word to its root first.  On more than one occasion, I searched for the word by the wrong root, and came up with some very creative and “entertaining” translations.  These would bring my fellow classmates to laughter, but Ah-Seng would just send me right back into the concordance, which we had to lug to class in all of its several pounds, for he knew I had the ability to correctly arrive at the right result.  Ah-Seng’s passion for Biblical Hebrew had risen out of a connection he made not initially with the language, but alternatively, through the physical experience he had with a close friend working on an archaeology dig in Beit Shemesh, Israel.  From this experience, he had developed a desire to understand the history of what he was literally uncovering at its essential linguistic roots.  He would show us pictures of himself on the dig, perhaps knowing that we were sometimes wondering what a Chinese Buddhist man of his esteem saw in Biblical Hebrew.  However, we never had any doubts that Ah-Seng knew his material.  Not only did he know Biblical Hebrew inside out and had studied with the most learned scholars in his field, he also would often show us the linguistic path of the evolution of a word — taking us through the word’s etymology in defunct languages such as Akkadian and Canaanite as well as the many similarities that exist in Arabic.  Mind-boggling, indeed.  Remember that overflowing classroom I described?  Well, only two weeks after that, the class had been reduced to nearly 50 percent its size.  See, we didn’t spend more than a day or so singing through the Alef-Bet.  I guess that’s just the pace of a difficult college course.  By the end of the course’s two year saga, there were only FOUR of us remaining.  At a very large school like Indiana University, we had created an extremely close-knit community, really almost a family in that class.  It was a special place that I had for those two years, and Ah-Seng saw his responsibility to create not only learning, but community surrounding all of those moments.  In his own words, he told us that we would dedicate part of every two hour class to tidal time — his term for chatting and catching up.  Shmoozing.  And then he said that we would seriously dedicate the majority of the remaining time to tidy time — time to focus on the details, which would add up to the entire picture. As we got to know Ah-Seng on such a personal level, we would ask him if and when he was ever going to finish his dissertation at Harvard. Without a beat, he would give us an existential answer, thus truly living in the moment, and say — he would finish it, only when the moment felt right, as if there was going to be a sign from the clouds. Ah-Seng truly lived in and for the moment. He never did finish his dissertation and ultimately he eventually moved to Yosemite where he was working a simple job and was clearly just enjoying life and following his heart’s path. I unfortunately learned in 2015 that Ah-Seng had passed away at the age of 59 of cancer. I carry the wisdom he brought to me to this very day. Do you see the cow?

Four years ago, I began a personal challenge when I walked into a new gym, which became my own personal classroom of endurance, power, and strength.  Ever since then, I have challenged myself twice a week at Orangetheory Fitness, and I have learned that I have way more physical strength and ability than I ever saw in myself.  What I love about going to this gym is that, without fail, I am pushed to go much further each and every time than I ever would on my own.  I know that I would have quit halfway through my own self-guided workout, but at Orangetheory, the supportive voice of the coach egging me on not to stop and to work toward my consistent goal keeps me going.  At every workout, I am up on the treadmill running, and on many an occasion, the person striving to keep going next to me is a physical inspiration for me to push myself further.  And, yet, I will admit that I sometimes find myself looking at the distance or the speed of those next to me, and I often have to remind myself that this is not a race.  I am only in a competition against myself.  How can I push myself to my next goal?  And, the more I thought about this, the more I realized that this isn’t just my mindset in the gym …  This is actually the way I have always approached my perspective as a teacher, guide, and coach to my own students.  I always want my students to measure their success by pushing themselves to their highest potential, and for each and every student, this level of attainment is different.  I often use the imagery that when you cross that finish line, you don’t want to say to yourself, “Well, I could have run that faster.”  No — You want to know that you gave it your all!  Just like me on the treadmill, I want my students of any age or background, not to compare themselves to others, but to simply create goals for themselves and then look back on how far they have come after they have achieved them and ultimately changed themselves for the better.

A Rabbi walked into a classroom.  It was an ancient classroom in an ancient temple in ancient times.  But, that probably doesn’t matter.  He was a teacher, and he had students, and class was about to begin.  And, the first thing he did when he started that class was that he thanked his students.  He thanked them for the opportunity to teach them and then they studied together.  There is something so special about this, and it resonates with me as to the way successful learning happens.  We, the teachers, cannot teach without a community of learners who become engaged in the excitement of learning.  For in that old adage, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. But as a teacher passionate about what I’m teaching, I can share the excitement of seeing something through a new perspective while opening doors to new wisdom and experiences.  On the back bookshelf in my office, you will find a sign and it says, “There are no mistakes. Only lessons.”  I found it one day in a shop and immediately thought — This is my educational philosophy, and then I realized, no, this is my life philosophy.  I really do believe that some of the best lessons in life stem not from the things we painstakingly plan out, but from mistakes, many which may be unintentional missteps.  These moments may be entirely unplanned, but they lead us ultimately in the right direction.  And, from our life experience, we all have the capacity to be a teacher.  Some of us don the actual title, with students who look to us to guide and teach them and help them understand, but we all have intersections in our lives where we can share with love and kindness that which we truly know with another person seeking direction to help guide them on life’s path.  All we need is the ability to try and see it through their eyes.  Many a student who has studied with me knows that I often try to reframe the way of looking at something they are struggling with or working hard to accomplish in the light of something they already do often and are passionate about.  For my athletes, we talk about how one focuses during a game or competition, and for my performers, we apply the way one rehearses to the energy and actions of an actual performance.  For each and every student, I love finding and connecting in a language that is one that they already own. We reflect upon how skills mastered in one arena can parallel the current tasks at hand.  Some things we study are very tangible and easily explained, while grasping other concepts may not be.  In the world which I inhabit, the world of singing, finding the right mechanics and technique isn’t something you can see.  When working with your voice, you can often noticeably accomplish something, but you don’t always know how you did it or got there.  Most of singing is internal and so you must rely on a feeling or a specific approach to recreate successes time and time again.  There are no mistakes, only lessons — that is very much the process of learning and ultimately succeeding.

Over the past year, I became a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a CASA for short.  I have loved the volunteer work I have done as a mentor and advocate to a 17 year old student who is in the foster care system.  Recently, we began working on goals to assist him in moving in the direction of college.  We visited a local college and spent some time in their library — it was a stunningly beautiful place, filled with wooden bookshelves full of books from end to end.  His eyes were wide with excitement as we walked through the aisles of books.  He had never seen such abundance and knowledge in one place.  He is a lover of books and libraries, but then told me that this was now his favorite library.  It was truly an exciting moment that hopefully instilled within him the anticipation of his future.  From the library, we ventured into a classroom building, where nearly every classroom was locked, but we had just the luck of finding one open and empty lecture hall.  We walked in and I had him try out one of the seats.  I shared my own wisdom of sitting toward the front of a large lecture hall to make the space as small and focused as you wanted it to be.  And, so I ask all of you, in the year to come, what lessons will you share?  The respected author Toni Morrison once said, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else.  If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

I walked into a classroom today and I saw all of you sitting here in front of me here in the sanctuary.  Actually, the first thing I did today was I drove to temple and just like every year, there is always an irony in my mind when I am driving here on Yom Kippur morning and to the majority of everyone else I see speeding down Tustin Avenue, it is just … Wednesday.  I look around at all of these other people driving to work, and I am thinking — Hey, where are you all going?!?  It’s Yom Kippur!  But, what a gift to us!  Because, today is not just an ordinary weekday.  Today is the most extraordinary of days and, if we forget that, the text of our prayers literally jump off the page to shout back at us — WAKE UP!  Today is a day that is set apart not just from the rest of this week, but from the rest of the entire year.  And, the fact that this day is set apart and that what we do in so many ways sets us apart is a great gift and lesson.  It is the gift to see the world through slightly different eyes, and through an amazingly unique perspective.  It is an opportunity to slow down and take notice of our lives and where we want to be headed.  Yom Kippur is a classroom for a day and until sundown tonight, this sanctuary is filled with an amazing palpable energy.  I wish I could bottle up that energy, because there is something so magical about it.  But, what if we could?  What if we could take that feeling from today and not let it fade away.  We would carry it with us every day of the year as a reminder of what it means to set ourselves apart from the normal, everyday elements of the world.  And, yet, to make one day more special than another, we do have to have that juxtaposed dynamic of the ordinary and regular to the special and extraordinary, which we call in Hebrew the chol to the kodesh, the profane to the holy.

Today, we carry forward many lessons.  In Hebrew, the term for lesson is shiur, which literally translates as a specific measure of learning.  It holds a similarity to the word for gate — sha’ar — the gates that we are ever conscious of on this holy day.  I studied the linguistics of these words and learned that there is a theory that their connection may be related to the marketplaces located at the entrance gates of walled cities.  In those marketplaces, there was a measured value to everything being sold.  On the contrary, the lessons we carry forward with us today are immeasurable and invaluable.  In the words that will conclude this morning’s service, we are told to “see the good in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us …” while “cultivating a discerning mind to know right from wrong … a listening heart open to love and forgiveness.”  And most of all, may we be guided forth in integrity with inspiration to do what is just and right.

Today and here forward, let us cherish the lessons that have made us who we are and may we find wisdom to share with others. May we always see the big picture, may we recognize that mistakes can truly be lessons in disguise, and let us all carry forth the lessons we embody today into the year to come.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

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