Yom Kippur 5777/2016 Drash by Rabbi Heather Miller
Do you know this book: The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Children love this book.
In it, a little caterpillar emerges from an egg exceedingly hungry. He goes on a mission to eat through various fruits and junk food, then he eats a leaf, builds a cocoon, and eventually emerges as a beautiful butterfly. For many children, this is the first time they encounter the concept that things change, and that change can be good.
In real life, this process of metamorphosis is incredible. I recently learned, in Scientific American, that actually, a caterpillar is genetically programmed to die. It’s organs even liquify, but due to an evolutionary miracle, at this same point in its fragile little life, another hormone kicks in to help rearrange all of its cells, and it is granted new life. A completely new life. Whereas before it was bound to trees and eat leaves, now it can fly and sustains itself on a diet of nectar. It was programmed to die, but its ability to adapt and change saved its little life.
It sounds wonderful and beautiful that intelligent adaptation can save from death.
Today, we are staring death in the face– look around: we are wearing white as we would on our burial day, denying ourselves of food and drink as we will have no purpose for those in death, staring at one point in this service at an open ark which resembles a coffin– today we are acting our our own death, so that we contemplate our lives.
We ask ourselves: When we are gone, what will they say about us? Are we living to build our resume? Or are we living to build our eulogy? That is, are we living to achieve success as defined by the popular culture around us, or are we living to achieve success as defined by the values of our tradition and our own moral compass? Have we missed the mark in some places? Have we missed the mark in many places? And, wherever we have missed the mark, are we willing to change?
We did this last year; so, have you changed since last year? Do you find that you are sitting here repenting the same missteps you did last year?
If you did, don’t be too hard on yourself. Change sounds relatively easy, but in truth, it is often exceedingly difficult.
Many of you know, this past year I was chosen to be a fellow of the Jewish Federation’s Edah Rabbinic Fellowship, a program inspiring rabbinic leaders around Los Angeles County to get comfortable with responding to change, and effecting change, for the sake of maintaining relevance and inspiration in an ever changing world.
In the third session of this program, we read an article shockingly called, “Change or Die.” This article studied the multi-bilion dollar healthcare industry, and found that only 1 in 10 people change their lifestyle even when they know that their life depends upon it.
They looked at patients who had coronary artery bypass surgery. Apparently two years after their surgeries, 90% of them had returned to their poor lifestyle. The authors write, “They knew they had a very bad disease, and they know they should change their lifestyle [to correct it], but for whatever reason, they can’t.”
Does this resonate with you? You may be struggling to change a behavior, habit, certain thoughts, or other actions. But it is difficult, right?
Change isn’t easy. But it is possible.
This year, I have been privileged to learn about some of the incredible changes each of you have undertaken:
-having become parents, or parents of twins (you know who you are!)
-having begun to or actually relocated to Palm Springs
-having retired after several decades in the same position
-having a child marry or becoming a grandparent or both
-having broken off a toxic relationship, or committing to a new one,
-having a medical issue that gives you a new routine of caring for yourself for life.
You are each inspiring to me as you each demonstrate that real human beings do have the capacity, the grit, and the guts it takes to change and adapt and reconstruct yourselves. You refused to give in to the inertia of your lives, and that takes true strength.
Yes, change is difficult! But it is possible.
My paternal grandmother, Dorothy Petrullo, may her memory be a blessing, was a master of change. She was a Navy wife. She lived in city after city following my grandfather around the world with their three children, moving countless times, and becoming an expert in re-establishing their home in new cities.
Any time she or any one of the children would have a particularly difficult time with the change they were enduring, she would point to an embroidered tapestry that she placed prominently in each new kitchen– it said, “ADJUST.” The word was hanging there, in the middle of the turmoil of change– the instability of a move, a new home, new friends, new routes to a new school, new everything– with the lingering probability that it would soon change again. The word just hung there, encouraging each member of the family to find ways to flourish in the new environment. When she died, each member of the family agreed that that tapestry encouraged and motivated them to succeed in academics or as class president or as cheer captain.
My maternal grandmother, who many of you know, Fruma Kit Endler, is a master of change as well. This year, her 96th year, she made a big transition– she moved from her retirement community to live with me, my wife and our son. In the weeks and months leading up to the change, we kept asking her about how we could make the transition as smooth as possible for her: What foods did she like? What keepsakes did she want to place around her new digs? What paintings would she like for us to hang on the walls in the common spaces? And, the whole time, she was absolutely amenable. She shared with me, “don’t you know that one of the secrets to my longevity is my ability to adapt!?!” And she did just that. She went from waking up after 11am everyday to cheerfully arriving at the table at 8am for breakfast! And, her reward for changing her routine at 96 years old was that she got to enjoy the giggles of delight that her 1 year old great-grandson would squeal upon seeing her emerge from her suite.
I’m not the only one who comes from a long line of experts at the skill of change. Our people were, and are, masters of change.
The ancient Israelites, when faced with the destruction of the Second Temple, adapted and transformed our religious practice from sacrificing animals in a singular temple in Jerusalem, to now engaging in communal prayer in synagogues across the land. Talk about a revolution!
During the rabbinic era, our sages did not shy from making rulings and then consciously and intentionally changing them one time, two times or several times in order to create better laws.
Medieval Jews, upon being barred from land and home ownership, adjusted and succeeded by becoming skilled peddlers and salespeople, investors and doctors.
Modern Jews reshaped and reorganized their entire lives often by leaving their home country under threat of death to immigrate to new lands of opportunity. For them, it really WAS a situation where they had a choice: change or die.
Each of us have the option to change. And each individual changing opens up new possibilities for everyone around them. Like one of those puzzle piece shifter games or rubik’s cubes.
When one piece changes, it moves others with it, closer to the ultimate solution.
That boldness and willingness to refashion one’s whole world is the basis for progress in the world.
I think of the city of West Hollywood who, just this year, enacted their new law requiring that all single stall bathrooms be gender neutral. Business owners and patrons alike had to shift their previous assumptions about the way things should be based upon the way they always were, and instead look to the way things ought to be. Social change was possible because of a willingness to change.
I think of Bernie Sanders who, this year ran a hard campaign, working with every fiber in his body to share his revolutionary vision for a new America. But then, who, upon being defeated, was able to adapt and adjust his message, and to willingly throw his support squarely behind his opponent in the primaries. I have so much respect for people who can change on principal like that. And he did that in front of millions of people.
I think of rabbis in our own Jewish Reform Movement who have adapted rabbinic law to recognize gender equality in ordination, allowed for the recognition of Jewish identity of children through patrilineal descent, and sanctified same sex marriages regardless of the vitriol that they endured as they were doing so.
Change isn’t easy. But it is possible.
The Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, is full of stories of our forebears mustering up the courage to change for the better regardless of how reluctant they may have been at first, effecting great change for so many others:
-Noah reluctantly, but for the sake of his life and the future of humanity, built the ark, and survived in it through the flooding of the world.
-Abraham, born an idol worshipper, decided to instead recognize the One True God, and thus he introduced monotheism to the world.
-Moses returned to Egypt after having found a new and comfortable life in Midian to lead our entire civilization out of slavery and into the wilderness in search of freedom.
-Each of the prophets heeded the call to fulfill their destiny, however reluctant they were at first, and by doing so, they effected great outcomes.
I so resonate with the prophet Jonah, for whom change was extremely difficult. He avoided change to no end. Even when he was personally told by God, to move, to get up and go to Nineveh, to deliver a message of change to the people there, he resisted. He instead got on a ship headed for a destination in the opposite direction, and hid from God in the belly of the ship, reluctant to tamper with the status quo.
It took being hurled over the side of the ship and being swallowed by a giant fish for Jonah to realize that he really had to change. And, when he did, he fulfilled his mission: he made it to Nineveh, and convinced the people there to change. He got every one of them there to repent from their evil ways, which in turn shifted God’s earlier plan to destroy them. The entire city! This is a tale of one person changing, and by doing so, saving the lives of the people in an entire city.
Change isn’t easy, but it is possible. And, when any one of us changes, it shifts the ecosystem that we are all part of– we all bring each other a little bit closer to living in that perfect world we are aching for. The motivations to change are clear- but that still doesn’t make it easy.
For those of us who have a difficult time with change, there is a great framework developed by a woman named Martha Beck that identifies four types of change, and four tools we have at our disposal to work through them.
Let’s pause now to think about a change that’s looming in your life– is it wanted? Is it necessary?
-For changes that are wanted and necessary, Beck suggests we become passionate about the change– repeat the mantra: “I have to change, and I want to.”
-For changes that are wanted but not necessary, Beck asks us to playfully remember, “I don’t have to change, but I want to.”
-For changes that are unwanted but necessary, Beck says it is always a good idea to remember your higher purpose to motivate you to follow through on changing. So, tap into your core values to help you move through the change.
-And if change is not wanted and not necessary, don’t change! Turn to peace. 
Let these resources hurl us over the hurdles that our minds and gut emotions erect in our way.
The Torah that we read on this holiest of days implores us to abandon our old ways that lead to our physical, spiritual mental or emotional death and rather to choose life, presumably by changing. We find in Deuteronomy 30:19 the consequential verse:
-הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ,…
…I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live…
By changing our lives, and changing our behaviors that lead us to death, we choose life. And, we choose life for one another, as well.
Please, throughout the year, when you read of change that others have made that inspire you, or if you see positive change in yourself or those around you, please email these stories to me.
I would love to learn of them and be inspired by them and share them. May we each be like the caterpillar and make the necessary changes, and inspire one another to change– and live! Amen!
One Comment on “Yom Kippur 5777/2016 Drash by Rabbi Heather Miller”
Simcha Reich September 14, 2018 am30 3:51 am .
Boy……. What a speech.
I really like the way you started, with an uncompromised “Good Yuntiv”. A greeting which Jews of ashkanazi decent have been greeting each other for many hundreds of years. A greeting which has no need of change.
Unfortunately, you somehow lost the infinite promise of the opening as soon as you started quoting the great sage, Eric Carle.
Throughout the entire body of the lecture, you didn’t mention, even once, about how Yom Kippur was really about begging G-d for forgiveness – for our transgressions against Him and his Torah. Why is this? Do you not know that the Day of Atonement is not about social activism? Not about the self-hating Jew Senator Sanders swallowing his pride to pay lip service to an equally although differently onerous human being? Not about proudly abandoning the very essence of what makes a Jew a Jew?
Have you ever studied the Videui, the confession which we say on Yom Kippur? I make a suggestion that you pick up a copy of the Haya Adam, who, in Principle 143, section1 has a beautiful and rich interpretation of the classic confession prayer, the Ashamnu. Barring that, take a look at the very last pages of the Artscroll machzor for Yom Kippur. Extremely moving and helpful. Both of these sources may help you understand, a bit better, the importance of the day, and perhaps you won’t be so bold as to trivialize it as you did in this speech.
Perhaps the next time you stand in front of you congregation, you can still talk of change, but change relevant to the survival and propagation of your people, not that which is leading headlong in assimilation and destruction.
As a start, try to find a copy of Asher Baruch Wegbreit’s commentary on Rabeinu Yona’s Gates of Repentance. This is a book written by a true Torah sage which will, no doubt help with you leading yourself, family and congregation to coming closer to G-d, and not the opposite, which you seem to be preaching in this missive.
I wish you, your family and your community a G’mar Chasimah Tovah, together with a frelichen Sukkos and all of the joys that the Jewish year brings.
I’m looking forward to reading your sermon from 5779.