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Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783

Delivered at Hevreh on September 15, 2023

A few years ago, NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly realized she was running out of time. Talking with her literary agent one day, the agent did what agents do—prod writers for new books.

Kelly told her agent she couldn’t possibly produce a book that year. The newsroom was bonkers, and more importantly, her eldest son was going into his senior year in high school. “This is my last shot. I’ve missed so much—so many of his games and concerts and science fairs and field trips—because I was working. And I always told myself, Next year I’ll be there. Well, I’m out of next years. This is it. My last chance to show up. To be present. This is the year of no more do-overs.”

That insight gave her agent what she wanted—another book that Kelly titled It. Goes. So. Fast. Written as memoir in real-time, Kelly catalogues her year in which her eldest graduated from high school, when she wanted to show up to soccer matches, and be there for him through the college selection process. It was also the year her father died, and her marriage fell on hard times.

Kelly’s memoir has stayed with me. The pathos with which Kelly writes is profound. While she and I are in different stages of life, boy, do I agree: It. Goes. So. Fast. This was my kind of book.

We all know life passes by in a blink of an eye. So, to slow things down, Kelly encourages us to imagine our lives as a play. Act I is childhood: school and backyards, camp and first loves, buying a car, a house, “and a bunch of other so-called grown-up milestones.” Then, “Kids are Act II. You don’t get much sleep in Act II.” Kelly describes Act III as the one she was entering as she began her reflections for her memoir. The kids are launched, there is more past than future to one’s career, there’s more grey, more aches and pains. Kelly hopes that in Act III, all the juicy plot twists are behind her, but as one reads on, we quickly find that not to be the case.

In all the acts of the play we call This-So-Called-Life, we find a smattering of twists and turns that we did not expect to take: News we did not expect others to spring on us. Events that were out of our control. Situations that were totally within our control, yet we had to make a change.

And as these plot twists show up in our narratives, we are confronted with a simple, direct question: What’s next? Because, as Kelly so aptly notes: life goes by too quickly.

Lifequakes: We all experience them. They are the pivot points in our stories. We each have moments when we realize that something has happened and we have changed. That happening could come from within—a light bulb goes off. Or, someone or something else might prompt the change—an experience that wakes us to a new reality. Children being born and first days of school and teens leaving for college, graduation and first apartments, the dating life, marriages and divorce and new relationships again, new jobs and promotions and retirement, illness and remission, the eventuality of death: each of these ordinary experiences become the extraordinary moments that shape our lives. Alongside those sorts of times are the traumas we suffer: everything from bruised knees and bruised egos to the more life-defining moments that end up unwantedly and unreasonably redefining who we are. And there are the communal challenges that we factor in. 9/11 was a lifequake, as was a global pandemic.

The idea of a lifequake comes from writer Bruce Feiler. It was a term he coined for his one of his latest books, Life is in the Transitions. Keeping in mind the natural disasters in Morocco and Libya, the scorching heat so many around the world experienced this summer—the term is purposefully evocative. There are the earthquakes and hurricanes that come our way, and there are the lifequakes that emerge from within.

Feiler became interested in life stories because of the plot twists that happened in his own. First, he was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer that necessitated a fierce course of chemo treatment and dramatic surgery to save his life and his leg. He was on crutches for two years and a cane for another year. Then, he nearly went bankrupt. The Great Recession deeply impacted the family business, and he and his family had to drain their savings. That punch came with another, as the field of print journalism evaporated in the face of the digital age. Finally, his father—who has Parkinson’s—kept trying to commit suicide. Despite Feiler’s best attempts, life just kept happening to him, taking him off the linear path he imagined he was on, forcing him to confront these other challenges.

As he describes it, Feiler believes that life is not a straight and narrow trajectory, regardless of how we tell it. Acts I, II, and III rarely flow from one to the next. The lifequake is when the narrator chimes in with “…and things would never be the same….” The substance of our life stories comes from those moments of inflection that cause us to realize that:

1. Something has changed.

2. We must respond.

3. And it all is going by so very quickly.

We see lifequakes in how we narrate our own personal histories and in how we tell any story.

We’ve already heard a couple of plot twists today. In our Torah reading, Akeidat Yitzchak, the biblical authors lay several turns before our ancestors. First, God asks Abraham to do the unthinkable: go to a mountain that is a three-day walk from your camp and offer your son there as a sacrifice to a God whom you trust but cannot see. I imagine Abraham receiving a call from God yet again and responding, “Have I not done enough for you? You told me and Sarai to get up and go from my father’s house to this other place. I did that. Despite my pleas to spare the innocent among them, I saw what You did to Sodom & Gomorrah. Sarah and I wanted a child, and you blessed us with Isaac. And now you want me to willfully remove him from my life?” God makes an unreasonable request of our forebear. It has to be fatiguing.

Let’s adjust the perspective, though. In the scene we read in Torah today, it is not Abraham who should be in focus, but Isaac. There is a reason we call it Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. A father brings his beloved son to a mountain and there performs a ritual that, if carried out, threatens to undo all that is promised. To see your father standing over you with a knife is the ritualization of trauma. It is no wonder that Isaac never speaks to his father or God again. I get it. Isaac experiences a lifequake that transforms his spiritual and family life.

In rereading Akeidat Yitzhak this year, the moral I am taking away is this: You cannot always have that thing you want. Despite your intended path, you must now head a different way.

Abraham and Sarah long for a child. God blesses them with their son, yet God’s commands assure that any meaningful relationship is ruptured—a lifequake. Isaac wants what everyone longs for—a connection with his parents. Abraham’s actions rupture that.

We know lifequakes from the characters we meet in Genesis and other monumental moments in Jewish history.

We couch so much of the Jewish experience in two fundamental modes: when we have been a landed people and when we have been in exile. Put broadly, from a Jewish perspective, we only live in one of two places. There is Haaretz, the Land itself, meaning more or less the Land of Israel. And there is Chutz La-Aretz, everywhere else outside that Land. The theme of exile—taken literally and metaphorically—is a constant in Jewish tradition to this day. And we can think of exile as one giant, societal lifequake.

Jewish history has been punctuated by moments of exile. In 722 BCE, the Assyrian empire conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, exiling its people to other places throughout its dominion. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroying the First Temple, sending the Southern Kingdom of Judah away.

These two national lifequakes pervade biblical literature. We can read much of the Hebrew Bible as a record of our people trying to comprehend what it means to be exiled. This lament is so well heard in the voice of the Psalmist when he sings, “By the rivers of Babylon, there I sat and wept for you, Zion.” You cannot have that thing you want. Despite your intended path, you must now head a different way.

Then, in 70 CE, after an extended period of return to the land, the Romans sacked Jerusalem, destroying the Second Temple of the Jewish people, birthing Rabbinic Judaism, the sort of Jewish life that we continue to practice. 1948 was another lifequake, the first time that a sovereign, democratic Jewish people were living on the Land again.

We have pivoted between negative and positive lifequakes for generations, having been strangers in strange lands or finding ourselves settled and surviving miraculously. The Jewish story is far from linear. And, these pivotal moments of exile echo across centuries.

Moreover, exile is not just a communal experience. Getting kicked out of one place and having to go to another is personal. Exile happens to us.

In trying to understand lifequakes, Bruce Feiler invited people to share their stories. In studying the moments in which people shifted direction, he initially thought that most people would describe times when life happened to them rather than moments when they took the helm. 9/11 is the thing someone might focus on when telling their story. Or, they may speak about a life-altering illness. Or how they were part of a layoff within a corporation. But those communal and involuntary experiences were not what topped the rankings of the most frequent type of lifequake. Instead, it was when people proactively made a change, being more like Abram and Sarai responding to God’s call to Lech l’cha. Like Mary Louise Kelly, it was about committing to being around for a kid in the last year before they head to college. It was about pursuing a passion rather than being stuck in a middle-management job. The most frequent kind of lifequake is when someone chooses to shake things up.

I could tell stories about lifequakes—describing the moments when people decided to follow a passion project, when we have moved from one community to another, or when people have overcome illness or tragedy. Yet, I know you could tell stories from your lives where you have had to make a change, where life has come your way, and you had to respond.

Maybe you are in the thick of a lifequake on this Rosh Hashanah. Welcome. You’re in good company.

Besides, we share a collective lifequake. The pandemic rocked our lives. And over the last year, I’ve noticed something: We are only starting to make sense of it now. We are now far enough away from the earliest days of the pandemic that we can tell one another the stories from 2020.

Something now has shifted. It is safer to share about what it was like to shut things down, to go through the fright of putting on masks for the first time, knowing so little about coronavirus, wiping down groceries with Clorox wipes, dashing into the store to gather up provisions needed for a long haul. We all pivoted so quickly, taking work and social engagements online. My mother read to her grandchildren on Facetime regularly. I took baking classes most weekends, topping off my skills when Liz challenged me to make one of the Great British Bakeoff recipes. It included homemade marshmallows and was an epic success.

Looking back on that time, I marvel at how we handled it. Still, when we talk about the shutdown, that is only part of the story.

Dr. Katelyn Jetelina is an epidemiologist and data scientist. She is also the author of the Substack called Your Local Epidemiologist. I started reading Dr. Jetelina’s writing during the pandemic. Recently, she appeared on the Ezra Klein Show, specifically for an essay she wrote called “Pandemic Revisionism.” In that piece, she describes how natural it is for us—as we begin to tell the stories from the pandemic—that are easy to tell: from the wiping down of groceries to the sudden (though I hope positive) moves people made to different locations to get out of complicated situations. Yet, Dr. Jetelina cautions about pandemic storytelling, and I resonate with her warning. When we do so, we write over the painful moments, the dramatic tragedies that still terrify and break hearts: hospitals overrun with COVID, thousands of deaths per day, and families unable to be with elderly loved ones as they struggled with the virus. When we tell one story, we are not telling the other.

While we can begin to tell the story of the lifequake that was the global pandemic, it is going to take more time to understand what we all went through (and, in tangible ways, what we are still reckoning with and going through).

At the least, while we can now look back, we, too, have moved forward. And that is one of the lessons of the lifequake: In telling our stories, it is about what caused us to pivot, but it is more about where we ended up; what we did next matters more than the thing that shook us up, to begin with. The story is about what we do after the quake has occurred. The outcome of the pivot is far more interesting, sometimes, than the pivot itself.

Sometimes, we never quite realize that life’s twists and turns will land us in a particular situation.

[Raise your hand if you were at the James Taylor concert this year.]

Liz and I went to the concert that was on July 3. I hear he played the same encore set the next night, so those who were there on July 4 also got to experience what I’m about to describe. We had all been out in the rain for the afternoon, and the skies cleared as the concert started. JT put on a great show, as he always does. Toward the end of the concert, Taylor introduced the band members, including his wife and his son, Henry. Henry has been performing with his father for the past several years. As the encores went from one to the next, we ended with a moment of poignancy. James and Henry Taylor came onto the stage together, each with a guitar. Together, they performed the song “You Can Close Your Eyes,” which James Taylor wrote in 1970, supposedly for his then-girlfriend, someone you may have heard of: Joni Mitchell.

Taylor and Mitchell would break up, but his sister, Kate, would go on to record the song. Carly Simon—James Taylor’s first wife—would cover it, too. This song has traveled with James Taylor through many of the acts of his life’s play.

He describes the song as a sort of secular hymn, a lullaby, and a love song: “Well, the sun is surely sinkin’ down / But the moon is slowly risin’ / So this old world must still be spinnin’ ’round / Yes, and I still love you / So close your eyes / You can close your eyes / It’s all right.”

This world keeps spinning. And: It. Goes. So. Fast.

Listening to James and Henry Taylor sing that song together, I began to imagine what it took to get the two of them to that moment. The unscripted happenings that had to fall into place for that father and that son to sit together and sing and play guitar not just with one another, but to one another. Watching these two men sing to one another was an answer to the question that emerge from lifequakes: What’s next? I doubt that the 1970s version of James Taylor ever imagined he’d perform that song with his son five decades later, moreover that is son would take ownership of it, reviving it in ways that one could not anticipate.

What is next is that we make choices, we roll with them, and when our kids tell us that they reworked something from our past, you have to respond “Yes! Okay!” Because in that moment, what was once a father’s song now belongs to the next generation. Taylor sings it himself: You can sing this song when I’m gone.

Lifequakes happen to all of us—from Abraham to James Taylor to Mary Louise Kelly and each of us sitting together on this Rosh Hashanah. On this holiday, we are invited to consider how we manage and reply to those pivotal moments. Because: It. Goes. So. Fast.

In telling our life story, the moment that everything changes is rarely the end of the story. The stuff of the story is what comes after, what we make of the moment. The hero’s journey is always one of transformation over struggle; our stories are no different.

My prayer for each of us, as we begin this new year, is that we find that we can tell the stories and sing the songs that speak meaning—deep, profound, sacred worth—into each of our lives.

May this year be one of sweetness, goodness, blessing, grace, and love. Shanah Tova.


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