My Rosh HaShanah Sermon


 The world has never been an easy place. There are no good old days, just nostalgia for a time that was far more difficult than we remember. There have always been external circumstances that have caused us great difficulties, whether war or famine or economic collapse. However, we create a great deal of the pain in our own lives. A lot of the suffering in our lives and the lives of our loved ones comes from trying to control everything in everyone’s lives including our own. Even believing that it is possible to do so is a cause of suffering.

We believe that if we try hard enough we can cause outcomes to occur the way we want them to. We believe we can create the perfect world if only everyone would come to their senses and just listen to us.

Our desire to control may come from good intentions, that is, wanting the best for ourselves and our loved ones, but based on what we think it should be.

Our desire to control might come from trying to live up to the illusions of ourselves and others that we have created and are afraid to face.

Our desire to control others and ourselves may come from anger, anger at the way our lives turned out, anger at the way the world turned out, anger at the people whom we hurt.

The good news, is that if we cause this suffering, we can alleviate it as well. One of the first essential truths of the Torah and Judaism is that so much of our suffering in the world is precisely because of our need to control ourselves and those in our lives, especially our loved ones, instead of appreciating and understanding them and ourselves for who we are. Judaism has powerful teachings on how to let go of control issues without feeling out of control. In fact, these teachings will bring greater freedom, wholeness and happiness than you may have thought possible.

This morning, I would like to look at some stories from our tradition which highlight the problems that come from constantly trying to be in control, look at the reasons why we might always feel the need to be in control, and then look at some solutions that might be helpful.

The first character, for lack of a better word, in the bible who understands that controlling others leads to suffering is god. God is essentially the first parent of teenagers. God has the perfect plan. Create two people. Create an environment for them, over which they had no say. Give them orders. Don’t ask for their input or their feelings about the situation, and then act all surprised when it does not work out. Eden was paradise to God, but it was a prison to Adam and Eve. They had no room to develop or grow into the kind of people they wanted to be. God eventually allows them to live their own lives together, and to figure things out on their own. Things were not perfect, but it was the first step in allowing people to become fully human.

Ten generations later is the Noah story. People have become violent and destructive, bringing the world closer to its chaotic origins. They have abused the free will god gave them. God has had enough. God tells Noah to build an ark. Not a ship, but an ark. A ship can be steered. An ark goes where the water and the wind take it. We do not know how many people God told to make an ark, but it is possible many others refused because they could not control where the ark was going. They did not have enough trust even in God to let go. Noah agrees, and is eventually saved along with his family.

Noah recognized that life in general is much more like an ark than a ship. We think that we are steering our lives, but when we look back it might be surprising to see how much of our lives were unexpected and surprising. If we were like Noah, we would have embraced the surprises and looked for the opportunities they created for us.

Ten generations after Noah is Abraham. Abraham is from the area now known as Iraq. His family were idolaters, and according to tradition, were manufacturers and distributors of idols. Idolatry at its core believes that if you do certain things, then the world will act the way you want it to. When this did not work, which was probably all the time, people would switch idols. Abraham’s family had a good business. Abraham, though, was the first to recognize that idolatry could never work, and that there was no magic formula to getting exactly what you wanted. The name of the city they lived in was Charan. Charan means anger, which probably limited their tourist business, but was reflective of the result of what happens when we do not get exactly what we want when we want it. Instead of changing their approach to life, the people of Charan keep pursuing their ways, thinking that maybe this time the world will work the way they want it to. We do not know how many people God approached to leave that unhealthy society, but only Abraham and Sarah leave. They knew that to live more meaningful lives, they were going to somehow have to leave their anger behind and go to a place where they could be themselves.

They turn the frustration they experienced in their lives into compassion for others. They become famous for helping others who were lost on their journeys. They began with little in their name except their belief that people could transcend their pain and learn to live meaningful lives in a world that was unpredictable, uncontrollable and a bit scary. This is why we think of them as the models for the Jewish people who would develop from them. It did not matter whether you were directly part of their family. All that mattered is that you would live a life open to seeing the potential in yourself and others, and would live compassionately.

The greatest example of the power of compassion is Moses, who is also our greatest leader. Moses is raised as an Egyptian prince, an excellent job for a nice Jewish boy. I am pretty sure he did not know that he had been born a Hebrew. That would have been too dangerous for him to know. He never could have kept that secret as a child. This is why the verse that said he saw the suffering of his brothers and sisters so powerful. He felt they were his family not because they were Hebrews, but because they were human. He flees Egypt after saving a Hebrew slave by killing the taskmaster. Pharaoh was not mad at Moses for killing the taskmaster. If you are a prince that is one of the things you get to do. Pharaoh was mad because Moses treated a slave like a person.

Moses returns to Egypt, not just to liberate the Hebrews, but to free the Egyptian rulers from their belief that they were gods that controlled all of time and space. Pharaoh refuses to believe that he was just a human being prone to all the uncertainties of life that every one else has. This attitude does not save Egypt, but destroys it. Pharaoh is so afraid of not looking powerful and in control that he loses everything, and Egypt is plunged into a depression that last a thousand years.

It is the slaves who become free by taking a chance on leaving the place that was miserable for them, but a comfortable misery, a misery in which they knew exactly what they were doing every day.

I bring these stories today, because so many of us are struggling with the same issues. We may not even be aware of the hurt that we are causing others and ourselves from our inability to let go and let people live their lives the way they want to, not just the way we want them to.

How often have we begun sentences with, don’t you think, or why don’t you? How often have we asked a young person what they want to be, and we respond. Oh. That’s nice. Do you really think you can make a living doing that? In fact I would ban the question of what do you want to be when you grow up, for what brings you joy now?

I would like to discuss the reasons we become so controlling. The first stems from a desire that our loved ones be successful. This seems fine, but we have to ask ourselves, is our primary motivation that our loved ones be happy and successful, or are we afraid their failure will make us look bad? How many children get pushed into the wrong schools and careers because the parents are afraid to tell their friends that their children were not as accomplished as others?

The next is a fear of disappointing others. The economy is not helping. The role of provider is being threatened. There are so many people who are living so far above their means because they do not want anyone to know the difficulties they are having. The irony is that so many people are in the same situation and would be relieved to know they were not the only ones among their friends. Many of us act like they are in control all the time because we are afraid that if our friends and family really knew us and our situation, they would not like us anymore, or would be disappointed in us. The truth is that our loved ones probably really do know us better than we think and are waiting for us to figure it out.

Even those who are successful professionally still suffer when they cannot come to grips with their controlling tendencies. They tend to wear people out in the workplace. They tend to land on their feet, but either they have a lot of staff turnover, or they get knew positions fairly frequently. A bigger problem, though, is often their home life. Many people are happier at work than at home, because they have more control over the situation at work than at home. Because of the economy, a lot of people no longer have the refuge of work and are confronting a situation that seems much more chaotic and uncontrollable, their homes. They become even more controlling at home in order to compensate.

Maybe we are afraid that our loved ones will repeat the mistakes that brought us so much pain. There is no way to be a person and avoid pain. We do our our loved ones no favors by controlling everything they do to avoid the pain we experienced. They will never develop the tools to cope by themselves.

The ultimate reason, though, for our controlling behavior can be found in a popular Jewish text from two thousand years ago. It is a text I have studied dozens of times, but last week I think I finally understood it. Pirkei avot asks, who is a strong person? The ones who conquer their inclination. This is often translated as the inclination to do the wrong thing, but I think there is something else going on here. Our sages understood this as a psychological phenomenon, not an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. Each person has their own. I came to a startling conclusion recently. I had always been aware of that I had a yetzer, an inclination to do things, but it had always been on the periphery of my vision. I realized recently that it looked just like me. I had been tormenting myself. Let me explain. The word for inclination is yetzer, which is comes from the same word as creation. Yetzer is the illusion we have of our selves that has developed over the years and prevents us from being the kind of people we know we could be. Each of us has our own yetzer that we created in our image.

The source of so much of our suffering is that we try to live according to the illusion of ourselves that we have created and the illusion that we expect others to live up to. This is what causes us to pursue professions that do not interest us. This is what allows us to talk ourselves out of doing things we do want to do, because that is just not us.

Judaism has some powerful teachings that can help us. The first is what we say every morning as part of our prayers. God, the soul that you put within me is pure. This means that we are fully human and worthy of love and dignity at all times. We do not have to earn it, or fake our way to it. We just have to realize that we are already in the image of God. This also means that everyone we know is also created in the image of God, and are worthy of love dignity and respect, even the people we may not like or agree with.

The most powerful teaching is the Ten Commandments, which were brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Yom kippur is in fact the anniversary of the giving of the ten commandments on the tablets that survived. If you remember, the first set got broken because the people created an idol, believing that they could determine when Moses would return and give them exactly what they wanted. The Ten commandments are really a tool for liberating ourselves from the thoughts and actions that prevent us from having better relationships.

Let’s look at a few.

Honor your parents. Remember where you came from and all the effort that it took to raise you. You may not have been a picnic, either when you were young, and may not have done everything your parents told you. Your children won’t either, but they will still love you, and they will still turn out okay. Most of the time.

Do not murder. People are entitled to their own lives. You are not the master of their destiny. Do not steal-it is not yours just because you want it. Do not covet and do not commit adultery means appreciate what is yours, and do not destroy other people’s relationships through your jealousy. Maybe the most important is Keep the Sabbath. This means that one day a week we realize that we have everything we need already. Nothing has to be done. It also means that world will actually keep spinning on its axis without our interference.

It is liberating to know that we do not have to solve everyone’s problems. It is impossible, anyway. We can learn what hurts people, and we must be brave and calm even if we learn that we are a source of their hurt because of our need to control them. Our task is to help people with the lives they want to lead, and help them pursue the opportunities that mean the most to them. It is up to them to decide what to do about them.

This does not mean that we should not try to improve our lives and to grow spiritually, physically and emotionally. I read the advice a jazz musician gave to his students. Be prepared. Show up on time. Work hard. Don’t get married to the results. We cannot control every outcome, but we can enjoy the process.

Most importantly, we can learn who we really are, and what we want to accomplish. It is not too late. By giving up the illusion that everything can be the way we want it, we will discover lives truly worth living.

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