Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Kol Nidre Sermon on Letting Go . . .

“Treading Lightly – The Stuff in Our Lives”
By Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein
Temple Israel of West Palm Beach
Copyright 2012

Kol Nidre Sermon - 2012


           Gut yuntif.

           If you were to look inside my car right now, I hope you would see that I have been trying to help a friend of mine help get their elderly aunt’s home ready for sale.  There are a ton of things in the car that are going to Goodwill just as soon as the High Holy Days are over … but, in the spirit of the season, I am going to confess that there just might have been a few things of my own in the back of my car before I added in my friend’s aunt’s belongings.

I’m not quite sure when it started, but before I moved here, the back of my car had become a place where things with unknown homes would go to die … and, since I’ve decided this is also the season of sharing, I have decided to share a few things I recently found in the very back of my car.

[Sharing of Things from “Rabbi Olshein's Box” … items placed on the table as they are explained …]

           Here is a water bottle that still has the cleaning information in it from a conference I attended in 2008 ... which I have never used.

           Here is a container of "Equal Spoonful" ... which I don’t actually use.

           Here is the sermon from the Senior Rabbi at my old congregation from 2009 … it was a really good sermon, but I’m not sure how this ended up in the back of my car.

           Here is a fur collar from an old coat which doesn’t fit me anymore, but somehow made it to the back of my car.

           Here is a cord from my refrigerator from my house in Las Vegas, with the water filter … I have no idea why I kept this, because (as far I know) it can’t be recycled ... the last time I lived there full-time was in 2008.

           Here are a pair of shoes I no longer wear.         

Here is my grade report, from undergrad, from 1987 … I’m not sure why I kept it this long, except to remind me that I received a “B” in my “Introduction to Business” class, which should have been an easy “A”.

           Here is the x-ray from when I broke a needle off in my toe right before traveling to El Salvador to volunteer, which I thought I should frame one day.  That was in 2007.

[Back to Reality]

Every so often, we hear stories on the news, and now via reality TV shows, about people who have so much stuff in their homes, that there is only a path from the front door to back door, so much so that people actually feel trapped in their homes.  They have invested so much into the things that they have, that they have literally boxed themselves into a world they feel as if they cannot escape.

But not everyone is an extremist like we see on the news, thankfully.  There are also people who have homes with so much stuff in them that they are afraid, or embarrassed, to open the door:  to friends, family, and even to strangers.  Heaven forbid something go wrong with the water heater or the sink or the toilet and a contractor would have to come over to fix it … and, yes, I admit, I have even heard myself say it a few times – “no, no, no, no need to come over … why don’t I just bring it to you?”  Or, “why don’t we just go out?” 

Yes, the cases we hear about on the news and in reality TV are often tied to mental illness, but that’s not what I’m talking about tonight.  I’m talking about the random stuff that has accumulated like the box of “random stuff” I have in the back of my car. 

You know that stuff that just seems to accumulate, maybe not in your car, but in your spare room?  Or maybe you have something you call your “junk drawer” … or maybe you have “junk drawers” – plural – or something we could call “the closet we dare not open”?  Or, since there are very few basements here in Florida, perhaps it’s your garage … maybe you can’t put the number of cars in the garage as the garage is advertised to hold?  OK, I know it is ONLY me … for many years, the garage in my house in Vegas held one less car than it was advertised to hold. 

Now listen, I know some of you out there are thinking, “Oh my God, we hired a hoarder.”  No, the new rabbi is not a hoarder.  : )

And I know there are more than a few of you out there who are thinking, “Rabbi, I sure do know people like that, but thankfully, you’re not talking about me.  I am organized and neat and I live by the rule:  ‘A place for everything, and …” everyone, say it with me, “everything in its place.’”  Just so you know, for those of us who DO have a junk drawer or a scary closet, we just can’t understand folks like you. 

[It’s Not Just Physical Clutter that Tie Us Down]

But a discussion about clutter really does apply to everyone, because it’s not just the physical clutter we have in our lives that tie us down … each and every one of us here tonight share what I call “mental clutter” … you could call it, “emotional clutter” … or maybe you prefer the idea of calling it, “relationship clutter,” but we all share it, and that’s in addition to any physical clutter almost all of us have. 

So now that I’ve given you a couple some different options regarding types of clutter, I want to challenge everyone to take a moment and literally close your eyes … now, no one fall asleep while you are doing this … I want you to think about what kind, or kinds, of clutter you have in your life right now? 

How long have you been carrying your clutter around with you?

Or, do you not actually carry it with you, but instead it is tied around your ankle like a ball and chain, with you dragging it from place to place, taking it with you wherever you go?

And then I have to ask … do you want to be carrying your clutter with you?


And now, open your eyes.

[Dealing with the Physical Clutter … and What It Represents]

Sometimes, when we think about the clutter in their lives, we do jump to the physical things – we really do jump straight to the stuff, like the stuff in my box … and we have to ask ourselves, why do we keep this physical clutter … why do we keep this random stuff?

There are many reasons we hold onto things … sometimes the clutter we have comes from a sense of obligation.

You see, we might have inherited things from the people we have loved and lost, with all their stuff being added to our own stuff, leading to a sense of obligation we feel to keep it.

Instead, though, what we truly should keep when people are gone are the memories of the people we have lost … not that broken lamp ... or the painting they loved ... or the half-set of dishes that don’t match ours that we never use.

By the way, please note that I am not saying that none of us should not treasure the things we inherit from our loved ones, quite to the contrary, I’m saying we actually should TREASURE the things we inherit from them … but, if we don’t have special feelings about a particular item, like if that chipped bowl in someone else’s pattern is never used, then we should not keep it out of a sense of obligation.

I told you a few minutes ago that my garage in my house in Las Vegas didn’t just house cars – in a strange way, my garage there is a sad place.  To this day, there are things still in that garage that brought my mother joy while she was alive – and now they sit collecting dust in my garage – it is now her things that have gone to my garage in a place so far away to die.

So now, when I’m visiting my house in Las Vegas, every time I see these items, I think about what they represented to her – and all I feel is guilt that I don’t appreciate them the way they deserve to be appreciated ... and that they serve no function, just sitting there in the garage collecting dust.

Authors Suzy Ormond and Marla Cilley, both experts on how we handle our home lives and our stuff, both write that we might want to consider a paradigm shift about how we manage our stuff – that perhaps we should release this stuff if we are not going to use it … and let it bless someone else.

Blessing someone else with things that have lived in my garage for far too long?  Or bless someone else with the stuff that never sees the light of day in my closet?  How about some of the stuff in my not yet unpacked boxes since I moved to Florida, now three months ago? 

Someone else just might find joy in what sits in those boxes and in things I have not used in far too long … and by holding onto these things, these things which are not bringing me joy, I might be keeping someone else from receiving that blessing. 

What’s another reason we might hold onto stuff we don’t need?  We might simply feel overwhelmed about the prospect of going through our things and physically getting rid of the items.

We all lead such busy lives that once something is put aside, it finds a new home, and it now lives “there” … so, if it is comfortable “there,” it becomes OK to leave it “there” … and suddenly we don’t even notice how the garage became full or how the closets are overflowing or how suddenly there is no space under the cabinets any more … and now it becomes too much … I simply can’t do it … it is simply overwhelming … it will never get better … so I am not even going to try.

[The Effects of Paralysis]

Which means it becomes a question of, if I can’t get the house totally clean and spotless, why should I even bother? 

This mentality of perfectionism – only the best will do — becomes paralyzing … our mental clutter affects our physical clutter and paralysis takes over … if I can’t do it all, and do it perfectly, well then, just never mind.

But maybe there is another reason we become collectors of “stuff” … some of us may have lived through the depression, or have been children of the depression which may have given us the idea of “but I might need it later” or “I’m saving it for later” … and when exactly does “later” come?

Before she died, Erma Bombeck wrote that, if she had to do it over again, she would use up that nice perfume she had received as a gift and had been saving for a special time … and the good china?  We don’t use it because the kids are too small and they might break one … but how else are our children going to learn how to handle delicate things?  And those beautiful candles with unburned wicks?  Their purpose for existing is to be burned – to release that special beautiful fragrance hidden inside. 

And that dream antique sports car that we are afraid to drive on the road?  It was made to be driven – not to sit kept in a garage, some might say, just waiting to fulfill its destiny out on the open road.

And what about anything that we might not want to use because we might mess it up?  How many of us have visited homes with plastic on the furniture?

Yes, we should all save for a rainy day, but should we save “that” and “that” and “that” for a rainy day, whatever “that” is for you?

[Dealing with Relationship Clutter]

I can hear some of you saying now, “But, Rabbi, Yom Kippur isn’t about stuff … it’s about people … it’s about relationships … it’s about making amends for the wrongs we have done and working towards being better people, right?”

Yes, that’s true, but how we treat our stuff, and how we let our stuff treat us, can sometimes tell us a lot about how we treat other people.

For example, just like keeping “stuff” out of a sense of obligation, what about the relationships we stay in out of a sense of obligation?

On Rosh HaShanah morning, you heard me quote the biblical verse, love your neighbor as yourself, and then I corrected myself saying, actually, I want you to treat the neighbor better than we treat ourselves, because some of us don’t treat ourselves very well.

Are we in unhealthy relationships out of a sense of obligation? 

I know it is hard to fire a friend, but sometimes friends aren’t really friends and they can be very destructive.  Even worse, sometimes, it is a family member … remember that old line when you are flying on an airplane to put your oxygen mask on first before helping those around you.  Sometimes, relationships can be toxic … sometimes we have to save ourselves from destructive obligations in our lives if we are to move forward in a healthy way … yes, we have to fire them in a nice way, only after we’ve tried everything else to salvage a relationship, but sometimes we have to move forward without them in our lives.

[Paralysis in Our Relationships]

And, yes, not only do we sometimes feel paralyzed about dealing with the stuff we have in our lives, sometimes, we feel paralyzed in our relationships as well.

Are we actually having honest conversations with the people we say we love?  Are we telling people when they have hurt us?  Are we communicating honestly about our needs and desires and the things that are important to us?  Or, are we closed down and have we stopped sharing what is truly going on in our heads, and in our hearts … do we feel paralyzed and have we stopped communicating? 

Do we expect all the people in our lives to simply know what we are thinking and feeling?  I mean, really, we’ve lived with them for how many years, don’t they KNOW that what are doing is bothering me … I mean, how could they not know that I don’t like that after all these years?  Why should I have to actually tell them?  Really, if they don’t know already … then I’m not going to tell them … they should just KNOW.

And then the resentment grows and grows and we carry it around with us, sometimes with the other person never even knowing how much pain we are in.  How many of us expect the people in our lives to be mind readers?  How many of us have simply stopped communicating about anything important with the people we say we love?

[I’ll Deal With it Later … But When is Later?] 

And then there are the folks who are the savers of the stuff … I know I’ll need that sometime later, so I don’t want to use it now … I better get a few more in case I need them someday.  Sometimes, the clutter in our relationships with both ourselves, and others, builds that way, too.

So I have to ask … is there something that has been bothering you for a long time that you haven’t talked out?  Do you carry this with you such that it affects your outside life? 

When we say the words of the ASHAMNU, did acknowledging that we all commit the offenses of keeping grudges or being narrow-minded jump out – have we become those stiff-necked people the Torah always warns us of becoming?

Have we let these negative feelings fester to such an extent that the relationships we are in today are not as we would hope … are they still affected by something even someone else may have done years ago? 

I think about all the folks I know who say, “it will get better when” and I think of all the folks I know who say, “I’ll get to that soon” … and I think of all the folks who say, “I’ll go see them soon.”  I hear, “now is not the right time for ___” and then fill in the blank with whatever people say is important to them.

But the reality is that what we say is important to us is not always what is important to us … and what we see as being important to us is not always what we should see as being important to us.

[Reality vs. Perception Regarding How We Rank Things]

If I were to ask everyone to think about what our lives look like and write down the things that are really important to you tonight, I think we would see lots of common things on our lists … I’m guessing that somewhere near the top of that list, I would hope to see the word “family,” with maybe “friends” close by (and, of course, since I’m a Rabbi, I hope I would see “living a good life according to your Jewish values on the list”).

But if I asked you to then open up your calendars on your phones or look at your paper calendars and compare how you spend your time with what you say your priorities are, my guess is that, for far too many of us, the two would not match.

You see, our calendars really show our priorities … they show the stuff with whom we choose to interact … they can tell us how we have chosen to spend our limited time on earth.  In a sad, scary way, our calendar really is our Book of Life.

While we are here, each of needs to tread lightly … of course, we need to tread a little more lightly physically, understanding our relationship to our stuff …

[Each individual item taken out earlier to be put back in the box …]

            I really don’t need this sermon anymore … it can be recycled.

            This water bottle and fur collar should both be donated.

            The refrigerator cord and filter can be thrown away.

            This canister of Equal can be used.

            This pair of shoes can be donated to our new shoe collection drive we are holding on October.

            I’m not sure what to do with my grade report and I really am going to frame that x-ray, but both of them need to go back in the box for right now.

[Treading Lightly in Our Relationships]

But more than we need to be careful about the physical stuff in our lives, we also need to tread lightly in our relationships with both ourselves and others. 

We need to understand that, as we choose to spend time with another person, or other people, we deserve to be treated well, just as they deserve to be treated well, too, which becomes easy once we truly take the time to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

Throughout this HHDs season, I have referred to the phrase from Pirke Avot, al shloshah d’varim, on three things the world stands, al haTorah, on Torah and learning, v’al haAvodah, on worship and service to God and others, v’al g’milut chasadim, and on acts of loving-kindness.   And for the world and, yes, I’m also talking about our own little personal worlds, these three must remain in balance.

But as I said before, it must start with the relationships inside each and every one of us.  We must let go of the harm we are holding inside … the negative feelings that only hold us back and, to the outside world, they might not even be known.  We must release the hurt, we must release the anger, we must release the guilt … we must show ourselves acts of loving-kindness. 

For if we do not dare tread lightly on our own souls, why should anyone else bother?

Yes, it is Kol Nidre … now is the time to let go … now is the time for letting go both physically and emotionally … just imagine … if we can make this happen … imagine how each of us can transform our lives into what we say we want them to be. 

Gut yuntif.