Shabbat Shuvah Sermon: The Importance of Reset Buttons in a Year of Upheaval and a Time of Tshuvah

Deborah Kraus

Shabbat Shuvah is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As the name implies, it continues the holiday themes of t’shuvah, repentance and return.

Before I begin, I want to say something because as I struggled to write this drash, I couldn’t quite rid myself of the thought, “people don’t want to hear about this.  They want something really political that speaks to the moment.” 

Nonetheless, I persisted, and wrote this anyway.  Primarily because it’s what I agreed to write, but also because of my strong belief that if we don’t figure out how to help ourselves in times like this, we can’t have the energy to help others or the world.

In this week’s Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us (which I highly recommend) she refers to an article by Adrian Farrow, entitled “Your Surge Capacity is Depleted; it’s Why You Feel Awful.”  It’s about how we cope (or don’t) when an acute situation, like the pandemic, becomes a chronic one.  It includes the term “resilience bank account,” which for most of us was depleted a long time ago and discusses how to get it back, most notably “to step into a more spacious mental space that allows you to do things that are constructive instead of being mired in a state of psychological self torment.”

And with that intro, here goes. 

Like many of us, I think of High Holidays as being the great time of resetting.  If we only do it once a year, this feels like the right time.  

How have we gone off our course?  

How might we even want to redefine our course?  

Is our course even possible any more?

Of course, this has been a particularly challenging year, even for those of us privileged enough to not have the rug pulled out from under us on a regular basis (I count myself among you if that is not yet clear)!  Think back to March and the frantic search for disinfectant wipes and toilet paper, when we were first confronted with the question of what is truly necessary to sustain us through what we thought was just going to be the next few days, maybe weeks.

And as days and weeks turned into months, and plans changed and were canceled, when we all started to ache for our connections and began to feel trapped in our homes, when those in our midst began to really annoy us—we did another reckoning of what was truly necessary, this time to sustain us through the few next months.

And, need I remind any of us that the problems of the world didn’t stop.  There were more black people killed with the subsequent long awaited beginning of a racial reckoning, there have been wildfires and disastrous hurricanes, there’s a recession, and of course there’s the almost complete erosion of democracy and the culture of caring in our country.  Topped off by the passing last Friday night of our hero and icon, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

While “reset button” is not the word most people think of first in referring to 2020, (I believe that word would be…never mind; you fill in the blank), this whole year has been one long series of reset buttons as COVID has magnified every single crack in ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation and our world.

We have proven to ourselves both how adaptable we can be, as well as how inflexible we can seem when there’s even just a little extra stress, a little unexpected anything.  At some point in the last 6½ months, we have all been at our breaking points a few times.

In fact, rather than being THE resetting time, the High Holidays this year feels like a time to look around us and inside ourselves and all breathe a sigh of relief for having gotten though to this occasion.  Shehechiyanu!

Nonetheless, when Rabbi Ora asked what I’d like to do a reflection on for High Holidays this year, I suggested this concept of reset buttons.   I think of bowling alleys from my youth, impatiently pushing the button when the pins got stuck or my preferred bowling ball did not immediately return.  Or we could think about the restart mechanism on our laptops and phones: we’ve learned that the first thing to try when something freezes or malfunctions is to restart it.

For some of us this reset has meant taking inventory.  

What is truly essential to live a contented life?  

Who is essential, both to society and to us?  

and

How are we adjusting? 

What have we learned from this experience?  

And I figured since I posed the questions and have another couple of minutes, I should answer them!

First, I have a renewed sense of my privilege.  I am lucky enough to be able to work from home and that I have a home that I love.  Much as I miss my daughter, I am glad she is launched, because anyone who is in transition has had such a harder time.  I have enough money to see me through. I live, as most of us do, in a bubble that has kept us safe because others take their health seriously and have the resources to do so. And most of us have skin color deemed not threatening.  I’m absolutely not trying to minimize what this pandemic has been like for anyone with a less full backpack of privilege.  

Next, I have become even clearer on what I need to be psychologically OK and that is connections.  At least once a day, I need a quality connection, outside of my work (which is full of them; I am a psychologist and connecting is my job).  And connections have abounded.  My close friends have become closer, generally through our weekly walks, usually, but not always, on the phone.  In fact, one of my closest friends moved to NJ during this time and I venture to say that in terms of our connection, I barely noticed.

Third, there’s been a renewed commitment to my health.  Being of the age bracket deemed vulnerable, and having had some health concerns that make me more so, I doubled down.  Walking at least my 10K steps and logging my food every day has turned into a discipline that reminds me to “change the things I can” when there’s so much of this world that I need to “accept that I cannot change.”

Fourth, I have learned I can do with less.  Life is simpler.  And I’ve been relieved to have more time to myself.  There has been less FOMO; I mean we’re all missing out!  The great equalizer!

But the next one is in direct contradiction to this last one.  While I can do with less, and my history is to “adapt, adapt, adapt,” my newest realization is that I some areas, pushing for more is a radical act.  None of us know how much time we have left in the world, and as Nadine Stair’s poem says, 

“If I had my life to live over, I’d dare to make more mistakes next time. I’d relax, I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.

So instead of saying an automatic “no” to my wants, I’m figuring out what parts of my wants can be possible.   Which is why I’m coming to you tonight from Glen Arbor, aka “my happy place,” where I have been since second day Rosh and will be till next Wednesday.  Yup, I’m spending Yom Kippur contemplating at the lake.

This great idea wasn’t mine.  But I’m glad someone asked me why, if I hadn’t gotten enough lake on my vacation, why I couldn’t go back up, since work is portable right now.  That’s the thing: despite my persona, I just don’t think outside the box enough. 

I imagine that’s what Nadine was thinking when she wrote that poem.

Because if not now, when?

In summary, I’ve stopped saying, “I can’t wait till things get back to normal,” 

because no one knows if that will ever happen, or what the new normal will look like,

because I believe that the real test of this reset button and this time of reflection is in what we will automatically go back to by next year,

And lastly,

because I believe that if we have learned nothing in this time– if we reset automatically to how things were– that  will have been the true missed opportunity.

Questions for Discussion:

What are the things you have learned through this pandemic and which of these lessons do you want to keep or expand upon as we think about post-pandemic?

Despite all the death, financial problems and governmental heartlessness, are there ways that the pandemic has been good for the world?

Does this concept of extended time of reset resonate for you, and if so, has it changed your high holiday experience?  If so, how?