Tuesday 11 October 2016

Groundhog Day All Over Again - Kol Nidrei Yom Kippur 5777

I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva. Astonishingly it's been 18 years since I studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Hang on, something’s not quite right here. Anyone else notice? A sense of déjà vu perhaps, been here before, heard it before? I’ve just reread the opening of the Kol Nidrei sermon I gave last year. Let me try again.

I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva.

No this definitely isn’t right.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the way this loop is wrong is somehow right - Kol Nidrei as a loop. The tunes are the same. And then there’s me. I’m the same me again. What about you? It’s harder than it looks not to be the same as we were last time we gathered here.

I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva.

I went to see the new Tim Minchin musical earlier in the summer, based on the movie Groundhog Day. Warning this sermon contains spoilers.

Groundhog Day is the story of a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney Pennsylvania to report on a rodent related weather phenomenon - which he can’t stand doing. He hates everything about the experience - from the coffee to the inane chatter to the way the police announce closure of the highways - and wakes up the next morning trapped, forced to live exactly the same day again - the same coffee, the same inane chatter, the same announcement about the highways.

And then again, and again, and again - that’s the show and exactly how or why this loop keeps spinning never gets explained.

But the movie, or the musical, never struck me as being about some weird supernatural phenomenon. It feels instead about real life, the loops, the patterns of repeat, the patterns of repeat, the patterns of repeat.

Because I don’t think I can be the only person who feels like they have been here before.

I think there are two quite wonderful lessons in Groundhog Day for those of us who feel a little trapped in a loop. Forgive the spoiler, but the way you escape a loop of you never reaching a different tomorrow is worry less about yourself and worry less about tomorrow.

Our weatherman is a narcissist. He sees everything in terms of what it allows him to do. When he realises that his days are in a permanent loop his first thought is whether he can use this freak occurrence to get the attractive blond who caught his eye into bed. Then he plots the perfect burglary. The test of whether anything is, or is not worth doing, is how it helps him.

It had me thinking of the end of the Book of Jonah. The big fish is a distant memory and Jonah looks out over the City of Nineveh, forgiven its sins and still standing. And Jonah is aggrieved. Histrionically he announces he would rather die than have to put up with the scene. The classic Rabbinic understanding of this outbreak of grumpiness is that Jonah is overly pre-occupied with his own standing as a prophet of truth. He prophesised the city would be destroyed, and now that it’s not, he’s cross.

Jonah’s missed the point. The point of the book of Jonah is not Jonah. It’s everyone else. Jonah’s pre-occupation with his own self-regard blinds him from realising what is really going on all around.

The problem of all this focus on ‘me, me, me’ is that it re-entrenches what is already there. Spend too much time chasing what you think you want and all you will do is re-create ever more precisely the surroundings that got you to yesterday. It’s engaging with other people that opens new horizons. Helping other people, making space for other people to do their other thing right in the way of anything we might have planned for ourselves, is the paradoxical but essential element that allows something different to happen tomorrow.

So this is the first tip, if you are feeling a little looped, repeating the same patterns as last year. Spend more time looking after other people and other people’s needs. And less worrying about your own.

Eventually our weatherman realises this - or at least he gives up on the narcissism and tries helping out others. He’s on caught the glass before it falls from the tray. He spends the day frantically fixing stuff for other people. Delivering babies, catching small boys falling from trees, fixing punctured car tyres for a bunch of little old ladies and the like, until by some cosmic oddity he’s set free from his loop. Our weatherman reaches tomorrow by looking after others.

It’s at once the biggest counter-intuitive insight and the most obvious truth about a life lived well. We become fulfilled through fulfilling the needs of others. We become as rich as that which we give away. Generosity of spirit unlocks for us a different future.

The way to get to a different tomorrow is worrying less about our own needs and worrying more about other people.

The second way to get to a different tomorrow is related. Care less about tomorrow and bring your focus to today.

The most macabre moment in Groundhog Day - the musical and the movie - comes when our weatherman gives up, he’s so frustrated he drives a car over the cliff. It doesn’t work. It’s Groundhog Day all over again. So he tries again. It’s bleak. Feeling trapped can feel that dark. But pinning all our hopes and aspirations on reaching a different future, counter-intuitively, can be the biggest loadstone preventing us reaching that goal.

I guess it is now 15 years ago that I travelled to a wedding in Leeds with Rabbi Pini Dunner, the charismatic founder Rabbi of the Saatchi Synagogue. The train pulled in at Doncaster. He checked his watch, and waved his finger sagely in my direction. “There is clearly,” he said, “a great cosmic need for us to be in Doncaster at precisely 10:42 on this precise day.” It was the sort of thing he would say, one part nurishkeit, one part completely like a worm that lodges deep in the mind and refuses to budge. Maybe the idea wormed its way into my mind because I would need it for a sermon some decade and a half later. What if we all paid attention to the great cosmic significance of every moment. Frankly any moment? Even this moment. What if we lived as if there was a great cosmic need for us to be here, at New London, right now, this Kol Nidrei night?

It’s a Jewish idea expressed most clearly in the ritual of the Hineini Muchan. There are a number of Mitzvot that are preceded with a formula where you say Hineini Muchan UMezuman - here I am, ready and present to perform the sacred obligation of shaking the Lulav or  Counting the Omer. As if to do one of these sacred obligations we need to arrest ourselves into the moment of their performance.

It’s one of the greatest challenge of our time. Arresting ourselves to the moment, rather than running forward to the next thing. We do it so poorly in our lives. But here we are today with nothing else to do but sit in the place in which we find ourselves, making ourselves present before our Creator, allowing ourselves the space to encounter the reality of our failures and achievements in this last year - a Cheshbon Nefesh - literally an account of the soul.

It’s not a skill that is to be practiced only once a year.

It’s the skill of Shabbat. This is Abraham Joshua Heschel in what is still the most important book I could recommend to any Jew wanting an insight into what Judaism offers. In The Sabbath Heschel says,

To set apart one day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily tuned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day in which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day in which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature - is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man's progress than the Sabbath.

It’s not even a skill to be practiced once a week. It’s there for us at every moment.

Spiritual teachers call it mindfulness, therapists call it living in the here and now. For me it’s the moment we acknowledge Hineni - here I am, in this moment with no thought for the next.

There’s a fun parenting blog called Hands-free-mama. The idea is that if you want to parent, put the phone down. Don’t try and parent and do anything else at the same time. It’s not just an idea for mamas, it’s not just an idea for parents. It’s for all of us, all the time. If we skip through the work of this very moment, it will still be there waiting for us tomorrow. But if we give ourselves truly to this moment we fulfil the task facing us and be freed for another tomorrow.

That’s what happens on Groundhog Day. Our weather eventually gives up trying to race through today in search of tomorrow. And instead brings all his efforts to this one day. He attempts to get today right and stops worrying about tomorrow and finds tomorrow sorts itself out.

So try this. Pick one task, it can be as holy as saying the first line of the Shema or as mundane as brushing your teeth, or simply taking a breath in and then out. And mean it. Bring yourself to the present task of accomplishing it without distraction. Try that for a while. And see just how much it might open new pathways for tomorrow.

Hineni Muchan U’mezuman - behold I am ready to do this one thing.

If you want a different tomorrow for yourself, focus less on yourself and less on tomorrow. And more on other people and more on this very moment - each moment in turn.

And who knows we might wake up in a different tomorrow.

I’m going to give the last word to Tim Minchin, the lyricist behind the musical version of Groundhog Day. In the last scene - I did say there would be spoilers - our weatherman wakes up and it is genuinely a different tomorrow and the last lines of the musical are his reflection on the journey that has brought him to this point.

I thought the only way to better days was through tomorrow. But now I know that
I’m here.
And I’m fine.
And I’m seeing you for the first time.
I’m alright.

That would do, it would do for me. I hope it would do for you.
And may the year of tomorrow be one in which we are all here, and all seeing each other as if for the first time.
And all alright.

Hatimah Tovah

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