Sermon: Nitzavim (Justin Wise)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 13 September 2018

As Rabbi Alan Lew says in “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared”, his wonderful book about the high holy days, all of life happens only in the present moment. There is no other moment in which we can actually live. Our lives can’t lived in the past, or in the future, no matter how much we might think about them, and because of this what we choose to do with the present matters enormously. If we are to choose life, to really choose to live the one life that we are each given, it’s not going to work as a one-off choice, made today and then forgotten. It’s going to be a matter of choosing again and again, moment by moment.  A life-long project.

But we forget this. Or, at least, I know I forget this. And it’s this forgetfulness, and the possibility of remembering, that interests me about this season of High Holydays we’re about to enter.

Forgetting that the choice is always before me is what had me, this last Wednesday night, after a long day away from home working, the night before all my children returned to school, the night when I most wanted to be present to and close to my loved ones, and when I knew I was going to need some sleep, sitting in a darkened room at my desk in front of my computer, late, checking my email.

It’s not as if there was anything urgent that I had to respond to. It’s not as if I was going to embark on anything significant. No, I was doing something else, something I suspect many of us do, whether it’s by email or instagram, by opening the fridge at midnight, or by working way beyond the work that that’s called for. I was running from my life. My forgetfulness was not, entirely, accidental. It was not just an absence of care and attention. It was something I was doing deliberately.

 If I let myself feel what’s actually going on at such moments I start to notice the hollowness and the sense of desperation that’s there. I’m hoping, hoping that something will arrive in my inbox to redeem me, to save me from the difficulties and anxieties of my life. I’m hoping for escape.  I’m hoping for a way to be relieved from having to pay attention and from the responsibility of choosing. Because to face that I have to choose means facing that there are consequences, and that I am responsible for them.

The commercial possibilities of this fear of choosing for ourselves have been well understood for a long time, and well exploited, mostly for financial gain, in the culture in which we live. Facebook and twitter and instagram and snapchat, google and much advertising, netflix – I could go on – are all vying for our attention.

Many of the products and services that they offer are useful and help us but at the same time there’s no doubt that they capitalise on our inattentiveness, they benefit from our not being too in touch with the truth of our lives, with our deepest and most genuine needs. And the more they can stir our distraction and appropriate our longing and fear and direct our attention towards their own ends the better for them, and the worse for us.

As the Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr says, we live together in a culture that actively encourages everyday addiction. We’re all addicted in one way or another, he says, and every one of our addictions is a deep and genuine longing for life, that we’re knocking on the wrong door to meet, in the hope that it will save us from having to actually face the enormity of our responsibility for our lives.

The Jungian therapist and author Francis Weller says this another way. Our fear of choice is easily manipulated so we that replace primary satisfactions with secondary satisfactions. The primary satisfactions are the ones which deeply fulfil us, they are he says “the basics of our lives, matters essential to our wellbeing: how we welcome our children into the world, how we give thanks, how we grieve together, and how we replenish and renew the world.

They are also – adequate and available touch; comforting in times of grief and pain; abundant play; the sharing of food eaten slowly; dark, starlit nights; the pleasures of conversation, friendship and laughter, a rich and responsive ritual life that addresses concerns central to our lives; continual exposure to and participation in nature; storytelling, dancing, and singing; attentive and engaged elders; a system of inclusion based on equality, and access to a varied and sensuous world.”

The primary satisfactions are the satisfactions that bring us in close, into community, and into the care of others and the world. While the secondary satisfactions are proxies or symbols that spin us apart – they offer the promise of fulfilment but when we get them we find that they are never enough. And that’s exactly what it’s like for me sitting in the dark checking my emails. I’m waiting for something, and I’m hoping I’ll get it. I know I’ll know it when it comes. I get tantalising glimpses but it never arrives, and the further I move away from myself the more I keep going.

The more I check my emails the more I send emails in the middle of the night, inviting others to do the same. The more I compare myself with the lives of others on facebook and post my own life to show how wonderful it is, the more I participate in keeping this all going.  So this isn’t an individual concern alone, we’re all making this together.

So we’re all right in the middle of this, and we’re longing to find our way back, to return to life, to find a way home. But we get afraid, and distracted, and lulled into being soothed with everyday addictions that have us forget what is actually life giving. And this, Alan Lew says, is the human condition.

And so the invitation of this week’s Torah reading. “v’hashevota el levavecha” which can be read as “you will return to your hearts”. When we really face the truth that blessing and curse are always right in front of us, we will, actually, have to choose whether to return to the aliveness that our hearts know so well. And there is no way to escape making the choice, because even our choice to not choose, to turn away, is, itself, a choice of its own.

If this was easy we wouldn’t need blindingly obvious reminders such as ‘choose life so that you and your children can live’. If it was easy, we wouldn’t substitute secondary needs for our primary ones. And we wouldn’t get spun out into a life of forgetting that keeps us away from what and who we most truly love and what will have us flourish.

And if it was easy we wouldn’t need times like the high holydays when we arrive en masse, longing for something, perhaps dreading it, knowing that need to be faced once again with the enormous truth that the moment-to-moment attention we pay to our lives shapes whether we will write a book of life and attention, or a book of death and distractedness.

I think that’s why it matters that we’re reminded again and again by Torah and our liturgy of the difficult obvious. And that we’re reminded at the same time that while it’s hard it’s not across the sea, or in the heavens, it’s right here, close by, waiting for us. And it’s why we need Alan Lew’s reminder that each moment of our lives offers us the possibility of a simple act of return, and that returning, teshuvah – coming back to ourselves and our lives – is something we actually have to do moment by moment and day by day if we are to live.

The return is in how we greet one another, and how we talk, how we wash the dishes and how we walk among tall trees, how we play and how we love, how we treat those around us and how we vote, how we spend our money and how we work. The return of our hearts is available to us in every part of human life.

And how it matters that the Jewish year reminds us that return is best not approached as something to do alone. That this is real and we are completely unprepared, and that we’re in it together, and that we need to be together, in community and in relationship, with shared practice and shared ritual – the primary satisfactions – to help us face the difficulty. That we’re in relationship with something way bigger than our tiny individual separate selves, that it’s never too late, and that when we remember this together it’s so much more straightforward to do what we are each here to do.