Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Growth Mindset for the New Year - Rosh HaShanah 5779/2018

This summer, I took one of my sons to a rock climbing gym. It was a new experience for us; we had never climbed before. We laced up our climbing shoes and let our eyes scan up the height of the wall. As we prepared ourselves for the challenge, we turned to the staff member nearby and said, “We’re ready.”

And he said, “Great. Now it’s time for your falling lesson. The first thing you need to do is learn how to fall.”

And I’m not going to lie. I immediately thought to myself – SERMON.

I mean: think about what he had just said. When attempting to go up, the first thing to learn is how to fall. How true for that wall… how true for life!

Learning how to properly fall assumes that we will fall at some point, so we better be prepared. The journey upwards is never guaranteed.

It also assumes interestingly that there are better ways to fall than others. Our teacher taught us how to protect our heads, our wrists, and our vital organs. He told us not to try to turn our bodies around while we were mid-fall; it was better, safer, he said, to fall backwards. He was teaching us how we could best cushion the impact and lessen the pain of a fall so that we could quickly get back up and try again.

So we started to climb and at first, we could only make it a little ways up before needing to head back down to re-group. We climbed some more. And yes, we fell. We survived. We rested and then pulled each other up for another go.

My hands were hurting. Muscles in my sides I didn’t even know existed were screaming at me, but I knew that this was good not just for my son, and not just for my body, but for my soul. It took over an hour for us to finally reach the top, but when we did, the feeling was exhilaration.

And that process, the climbing and the falling, and that awesome feeling of finally reaching the top got me thinking about how we change and stretch and how sometimes we need to force ourselves out of our comfort zones to wake up our dormant muscles within.

Perhaps you can relate - I know I can - to that moment when God turns to the people at Sinai many moons after revelation and honestly and frankly says to them: Rav lachem shevet b’har hazeh - You have lingered too long at this mountain.[1]

It’s time to go.

In this season of change when the holy days beckon us into discernment, how do we recognize when we, too, have lingered too long? And when we realize that it is indeed time for a change, how do we even start? Where is the falling class for life?

In thinking about all of this, I’ve found the work of social scientist Dr. Carol Dweck to be helpful. In her book, Mindset,[2] Dweck teaches us about change and specifically about what she calls the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

People who operate with a fixed mindset, she argues, believe that intelligence and talent are fixed within all of us. Sure, we can learn new content, but our strengths are fixed as our strengths and so are our weaknesses. We may think of ourselves as athletic or clumsy, as bold or shy, as brilliant or definitively not – and we’ve been that way since birth. A fixed mindset is the belief that we are simply who we are.  People don’t change – not really.

On the other hand, people who tend towards a growth mindset are people who believe that we can change and grow over time with hard work. Failures and falls are not reflections on the core of who we are; rather, they are opportunities for growth that will help us become smarter and stronger.

While a lot of Dweck’s work is being used to design better classrooms to help children grow as learners, these ideas apply just the same to adults, we who too often and to our own detriment think of ourselves as fixed, as grown, as done with all the learning that we are going to do. The truth is that if we think that we are already fully baked into who we are, then honestly the work of this season, the work of change and teshuvah will do very little for us.

Deuteronomy warns us against becoming too self-satisfied. In the voice of Moses, we learn: Perhaps you will eat and become satisfied, you will build nice homes and become settled… then you could become arrogant and forget about God who brought you out of Egypt, who led you through the vast wilderness… and you may say ‘My power, the strength of my hand made me all this wealth.’[3]

We all have work to do.

A growth mindset, though a new term, is not, I would argue, a new idea. For millennia, we have had teshuvah in our back pockets, the core belief that accompanies these holy days, teaching us that change is indeed possible. Lest we think that we are merely our past actions, especially our mistakes – teshuvah says no, you can be more.

Teshuvah is often translated as repentance but is better translated as turning and best understood as change.

Teshuvah is completely about mindset. The potential for change is completely about mindset.

Studies have shown that simply believing that it is possible to change helps us actualize that change. And it is possible. Scientists have discovered that our brains continually re-organize throughout our lifetimes. A brain is like a dynamic, connected power-grid and it can be re-wired. Trying new things, working on new skills, even feeling new feelings can ignite our neurons and get them firing to create new pathways. With practice and hard work, these pathways can become stronger and old pathways, old habits can fall away.

This knowledge can be a powerful tool in the work of teshuvah.

And we need that tool to get to what Dweck calls “The Power of Yet.” She studied a high school in Chicago where if a student didn’t pass a course, they received the grade “Not Yet.” Instead of F for Fail – they received Not Yet.

I’d wager that there isn’t one of us here who hasn’t fallen down at some point. Instead of thinking of that fall as indicative of our failure, how radical would it be if we thought of our stumbles as stops on the way to our eventual goal.

The idea that I have failed sometimes stops me in my tracks; it makes me want to give up. It makes me to think to myself: I am a failure. But not-yet screams to me that I better get up and give it another go.

The Power of Yet is about the belief in self even if it takes me the long road to get to my destination. As we’re taught in Proverbs: “The righteous will fall seven times and will rise again.”[4]

Stumbling and falling, it’s part of the journey, but it’s what you do after you fall that determines who you really are.

We might call that resilience. Or perseverance. Or we might call it grit.

Angela Duckworth recently wrote a best-selling book entitled Grit[5] and in it, she digs deep to discover why some people succeed when others do not.

She studied academia, athletics, business, and more. She visited West Point. She visited the Scripps Spelling Bee. And what she discovered was that talent and brilliance weren’t the determining factors for success in each of these elite areas. Everyone was talented at West Point; everyone was brilliant in the Bee. But her research revealed that the folks who graduated West Point or were the top performers at the Bee were the ones who knew how to get back up.

Sure, someone else may be able to run the course faster or spell some unknown, unusual word without much study, but the folks who thrived were the ones who had become acquainted with failure early on rather than the ones who had become accustomed to always coming out on top.

Knowing how to deal with failure said more about long-term success than any other factor. Talent counts. Luck is a part of success, too. But grit time and again was the best determining factor to explain who crossed the finish line.

Grit is the belief that hard work pays off and failure once doesn’t mean failure always. As Duckworth explained, Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.[6]

So then: how do we get grittier?

It turns out grit is not innate in us either. It is a skill that can be learned.

We can get grittier by practicing persistence. When something is easy, it’s time to step it up. Just like at the gym. When a weight becomes too easy for you, you know it’s time to add more reps or more weight. To get a good work-out, we should be struggling. It should be hard. Not so hard that we walk away. But incrementally harder over time. Another five pounds until it feels easy again. Muscles literally need to tear in order to grow. So, too, with us.

Persistence is going just a bit further, just to where you begin to feel discomfort – and this applies in so many facets of our lives. Persistence in learning. Persistence in being brave and bold. Persistence in love.

We can get grittier by practicing resilience. When we put ourselves out there, we’re not going to succeed at everything – and certainly not right away. We need to practice bouncing back after smaller set-backs so that we are prepared for the bigger ones. Resilience is realizing that difficulties in life need not be paralyzing events, but rather moments to be reckoned with.

Sometimes, we want moments and feelings to disappear. Sometimes the events of our lives are overwhelming. I’ve sat with some of you after something life-changing, after a death or after a trauma that feels like a death and you’ve said to me, “When will I stop feeling this way?”

And any one of us who has gone through this, myself included, eventually learns that the answer is that these bigger events of trauma never truly go away; they come in like waves. Sometimes the seas are quiet and sometimes there is a storm. We never “move on.”

Resilience is learning how to ride the waves and when they knock us down, how to swim back up to the surface for air. Resilience is also all those hands around us that hold us up when we run out of breath.

We can get grittier by practicing empathy. Yes, empathy will help us become stronger, grittier and more in line with a growth mindset. Understanding a problem or a situation from someone else’s point of view reminds us that our view on the world is not the only view. We can practice empathy by slowing down, by listening, and by being present in the lives of others.

Empathy emerges from the very heart of Torah, the heart of our story: You were strangers in the land of Egypt – you know the heart of the stranger.[7] Knowing others, knowing their hearts, is essential for knowing our own.

Grit and a growth mindset, persistence, resilience, and empathy – they show up all over our tradition. Take Jacob, who one can argue is the grittiest guy in all of Torah and also the character who perhaps changes the most.[8]

Jacob begins his existence as a trickster, but with age, experience, and failure after failure after failure finally makes a turn. On the evening before a confrontation with his brother who had threatened to kill him over Jacob’s trickery, our text tells us that Jacob struggles throughout the night with a character only identified as an ish, which is Hebrew for man.

Neither is able to get the upper hand until finally Jacob is injured, but instead of letting go, he hangs on for dear life and demands a blessing from the ish.

Many commentators believe that this unnamed character is Jacob’s moral self - and it’s God, too. And that’s not a large leap, is it? We all wrestle with ourselves, our past, and our decisions. But what makes this moment extraordinary is that Jacob won’t allow the struggle to be for nothing. He demands a blessing, self-aware enough to not let this moment go by without learning something about himself.

Therein, I believe, is the key for us. When we feel like a piece of us has been wrenched, when we struggle, the question is: will we fight for a blessing?

Jacob’s blessing is a new name. Israel. It is symbolic of his growth and his struggle, symbolic of the opportunity to make himself anew.

The next morning, he goes willingly to confront the brother who has the power to destroy him. And what does Jacob- what does Israel do? He bows in humility; he bows in apology. He does teshuvah.

We always have a choice. At every point in our lives, at every moment, at every age, no matter what’s already happened, we always have a choice about what we will do next.

Life is not fair. Through luck, some of us are dealt better hands than others. We don’t get to determine our genes or the circumstances into which we are born. We cannot control the additional challenges of life that come our way. But we are not powerless.

Tomorrow morning, we return in our liturgy to that great imagery of the Book of Life laid open before God. And while the Book of Life is not and was never meant to be understood literally, its imagery speaks to us because it feels so much like our experience of this life – our powerlessness at the hands of the universe.

But make sure you have the whole picture. The poet who penned this incredibly evocative image gave us a great gift. The Book is laid open and the poet points for us to pay attention to what’s on the page. On the page are our signatures, he screams. It’s our handwriting, signaling to us that despite our sense of powerlessness in the world, we are still the authors of our next chapter.[9]

We always have a choice.

The approach of the fixed mindset is to relinquish all control and throw the pen onto the floor. It’s fate. It’s my genes. It’s God and that Book of Life.

The approach of the growth mindset doesn’t deny that there are parts of our lives over which we have little to no control. It’s not naïve. But what a growth mindset does is re-position us to pay attention to the power we do possess. To the teshuvah we can do, the change, the growing, the living, the doing, the giving. Don’t sell yourselves short – you are powerful.

We’re taught, Love your neighbor as yourself.[10]

Which is well and good except when we don’t know how. Labeling yourself in boxes, never letting yourself escape and grow and change does not look like love to me.

What stories are you telling you about yourself?

That you can never change?

That you’re afraid you’ll always be the cheater. Or the angry one. Or the alcoholic. Or you’ll always be the victim. Or you’re not the parent you want to be. Or the child your parents need. Or you’ll never measure up because you’re not smart enough. Or deserving of love.

If you can do that to yourself and never give yourself the sacred gift of a new day, a new year, the sacred gift of self-discovery, then you’ll never allow anyone else in your life to change in your head or your heart either.

And that is a tragedy on both counts. That is sadness. That is a prison of your own creation.

…. So break free.

Break the doors down. Let this be the year when you write your own story. Take the opportunity of a new year to re-wire your brain with new pathways of understanding and re-frame your heart with kindness and compassion. Let this be the year where you accept the fact that falling is a part of the journey – and so is getting back up.

And love yourself – and love your neighbor as yourself. We all change in our own time; be open to the possibility that others are moving through their own self-discovery and allow them the opportunity to show you.

Save the labels for those bins in the garage; labels don’t belong on people. They don’t belong on you.

Dr. Carol Dweck wisely wrote: We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.[11]

We, mere mortals, come into our world brimming with potential and power. Our stories are not yet set in stone. Our stories are still being written.

What do you want your story to say next about you?

Say you’re strong. Say you are learning. Say you are not perfect – none of us are – and that is just fine. Say you are not satisfied with the status quo. Say you are deserving. And you will pick yourself up when you fall and you will try again.

Because you believe in the power of teshuvah and transformation. Because you believe in yourself. Because you are making yourself extraordinary.

One last teaching for this Rosh HaShanah, a teaching from midrash that I love more than I can possibly say:

Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and softly whispers: grow, grow.[12]

If that is true for each and every blade of grass and I like it imagine it is, then all the moreso should it be true for each and every one of us.

May we all grow, grow.

Shanah tovah.


[1] Deuteronomy 1:6.
[2] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.
[3] Adapted from Deuteronomy 8:12-17.
[4] Proverbs 24:16.
[5] Duckworth, A. Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Harper Collins Publishers. Ltd., 2016.
[6] Duckworth. Grit, 20.
[7] Adapted from Exodus 23:9.
[8] The story of Jacob spans much of Genesis; my focus is Genesis 32:23-33.
[9] The prayer is Unetaneh Tokef. The line referenced is: v’chotam yad kol adam bo variously translated as “and every human signature is in it (the Book of Life)” or “every human being leaves it mark” among other translations.
[10] Leviticus 19:18.
[11] Dweck. Mindset, 90.
[12] Adapted from Midrash Rabba, Breisheet 10:6.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

God is Close to the Broken-Hearted - Yom Kippur 5778/2017

So I just spoke to you.

Right there, in front of the open ark.

We called out your name.

We called out Avinu Malkeinu, Our Parent, Our Sovereign, shma koleinu – hear our voice. We called out Avinu Malkeinu, halt the onslaught of violence and the reign of those who cause pain. We called out Avinu Malkeinu, have compassion on us and on our children.

Do you hear us?

In this tenuous time when the world feels broken and upside-down, we call out your name.

Do you hear us?

When yet another hurricane forms in the sea, when the local school gets evacuated for a bomb threat yet again, when the cancer is growing rather than shrinking, we call out your name.

And I keep asking: Do you hear us? Do you hear us? But maybe the question we should be asking instead is: Are we hearing you?

Avinu Malkeinu, we are open to hearing you …or at least I think we are. I think that I am ready to hear you, to respond to you. But if I am honest, on most days we are probably only as open to you as the speaker in Pastor Wilbur Rees’ poem who says:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine…
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Yes, we want the ecstasy and the warmth of the womb and the comfort of you, God, but will we take all of you? Will we take the transformation that these days require of us, too? The discomfort of a new birth?

God, we know you by different names and by different experiences. For some, you are the still, small voice, our moral compass. For others, you are the big, booming voice that is judgment. Some struggle to know you, but can’t – at least not yet. And for others, you are a big, beautiful idea and that is where you end.

And what are you to me?

As someone who for too long felt like she didn’t really belong anywhere, I guess I’ve always felt like I belonged with you.

I grew up as the only Jewish kid in my elementary school, the only Jewish kid in an Irish Catholic neighborhood where the streets were empty on Sunday mornings. But we didn’t belong to synagogue either so I had no real Jewish community to speak of. I was Jewish, but had no education or community or experience to back that up. My mom was Jewish, my dad was Protestant, but neither were particularly passionate about any of it. But for some reason, I was.

I’ve always been interested in what makes this world go round – and not in the scientific way although that certainly interests me, too – but I have always been more interested in what powers us with hope and how we learn to live with our fear. I want to know how one discerns their purpose and if our capacity to love will ever exceed our capacity to hate. To someone else, these are only sociological or psychological questions, but to me, they are also deep, rich theological ones, too.

Maybe it all comes back to a conversation I had with my mom when I was 6, maybe 7. She turned to me, seemingly out of the blue, but something –and I wish she was still around on this earth so I could ask her now– something triggered her heart to make her say to me: Jill, just believe in God. Okay?

Maybe that’s why the words of the poet, Yehuda Amichai ring true for me when he says:

Bird tracks in the sand at night
are still there in the daytime, though I’ve never seen
the bird that left them. That’s the way it is
with God.

That’s the way it is with God.

There are bird tracks, footprints all over the sand, all over this world. And my insides itch to respond to them.

Avinu Malkeinu, we want to be seen, heard, understood... And maybe you do, too.

After all, you were that lowly little bush all caught on fire, unconsumed. Midrash teaches us that so many of us passed you by, not paying attention, not seeing you for what you really were. It took Moses turning to notice you.[1] Perhaps it took the trauma in his life to truly prime him to notice the wonder that was you.

Maybe that is why you identify with us, a people who are so often in the depths. Maybe that is why you identify with each one of us, each on our own, when we are in sorrow. For you know what it is like to be ignored, passed by, unloved. You know what it is like to be on your own, to be singular.

Perhaps you need us as much as we need you.

Will we turn in time to notice you, the fire that burns, unconsumed before the gates close? Will we finally hear – this time – the messages you have been sending us for so long?

Through your prophet, Isaiah, you ask us about this moment: is this fast for real?[2] Or is all this moaning and groaning for show? You challenge us to consider: Do our empty bellies mean anything if they don’t lead us to care about the hungry man, woman, and child on the street? Will the sukkot that we will build in just a few days, the houses that are not houses lacking roofs so that the rain gets into our very bones – do they mean anything if they don’t lead us to take in those without shelter? Our rituals, you teach us, don’t exist just to invoke nostalgia; no, they are here to shake us and to wake us up to caring about the world.

And through your prophet, Ezekiel, you urge us to remove our hearts of stone so that you can give us hearts of flesh.[3] For more times than I can count, God, I have found myself feeling like I am floating above my life, watching it like an observer might. Why do I do that? And I know that I am not alone. Maybe we do it because it is easier, maybe we do it because we are afraid to be in this life living it with all the muck and anxiety and uncertainty and pain – and maybe with all the joy, too, not wanting to get too close to the joy in case it suddenly dissipates and disappears. But what kind of life is that? It is surely not a life with a heart of flesh. We need to chip away at the stone in earnest, chip away whatever prevents us for fully living our lives.

And through your prophet, Micah, you demand that we love mercy, do justice and walk humbly beside you.[4] By turning our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, we’re beginning to get at that complicated command to love mercy; we’re beginning to scratch the surface at how to see the sacred spark in our fellow flawed human beings. By turning intentions into actions, by making this fast real, by making it mean something, the path to justice becomes that much clearer. And as for walking humbly beside you, I see footprints all around, God, and I am running to catch up with you.

Avinu Malkeinu, I hear you echoing through the words of your prophets. You are telling us to stop being afraid and to get courageous and to get out of our heads and back into our hearts. You’re telling us to get to the important work, to stop blaming the universe for our discontent; you’re telling us to LIVE.

God, I am chipping away at the stone so that I can transform, because I don’t want just $3 worth of you… No, God, I will take it all.

Avinu Malkeinu choneinu v’aneinu. Avinu Malkeinu have compassion on us and answer us because it is not easy.  Choneinu v’aneinu, have compassion on us and answer us ki ain banu maasim, for we have no deeds.

And this is where it gets real.

Have compassion on us because we are here, we are showing up and yet ain banu ma’asim. It turns out that though we have tried to do enough to earn your compassion on our merit, on our deeds, on our actions in this life, it turns out ain banu ma’asim, we have not done enough.

I’m reminded that though you don’t hear it much anymore, there is an old custom to whisper these last two lines of Avinu Malkeinu.

Why whisper? Because it’s like we’re visiting a supply store that we only get to visit once a year and we’re excited about all the items on the shelves. They’ll make our lives good. And we point at this item and that item and say loudly: give me this and give me that. But then when it comes time to pay, we reach into our pockets and we discover ain banu ma’asim, we can’t cover the costs. So we whisper to the cashier, can you give me credit? I’ll pay you next year, I promise.

We, too, walk around the world saying we want this, we want that. We want compassion, we want health, we want redemption, we want a good year. And when we finally get up to the Great Cashier, when we stand in front of the open ark, we find ourselves reaching into our pockets and whispering: ain banu ma’asim. We don’t have enough deeds.

God, the truth is that we have not done all that we could have this year. We tried – we really did. But all we have left in this grand moment… is us. All I have left in this grand moment …is me.

And as I once learned from Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory: when all you have left to offer is a broken heart, you offer your broken heart.[5]

The psalmist sang: God is close to the broken-hearted.[6]

God, we offer you our heartbreak. The heartbreak of witnessing the horror of our world. The heartbreak of unfairly assigning you all the blame. The heartbreak that we feel so little and like we can only do so much. The heartbreak that we know that we could have done more and we didn’t.

God, I have chipped away at the stone, and I can feel what’s inside, it’s beating, it’s real, it’s flesh. And it’s breaking.

We are turning and noticing you. We are harkening to your voice passed down through the generations and reverberating still right now right here in this room.

And we are learning:

Hurricanes after hurricanes – they don’t mean that you are absent, God; they mean that we, the inhabitants of this world need to pay better attention to our planet and what we are doing to it – and we need to fight for it.

Evacuations from school after bomb threats – they don’t mean that you don’t care; they mean we need to respond courageously to the growth of hatred in human hearts around us and lift up as much love as we can in its place.

Cancer that is growing – it does not mean that you do not cry with us. God, you cry with us. It means that not only do we need to raise awareness and money to find better treatment and a cure, it also means that we need to show up. We need to show up and be with those who are in pain, be a connection, be the hands of God on earth.

Our broken hearts serve a sacred purpose. They remind us that we are awake and alive. And they call us to action.

Avinu Malkeinu, aseh imanu tzedakah v’chesed v’hoshieinu - Avinu Malkeinu, Make justice with us, make kindness with us – and help us.

And it all turns on that one little word that we say at the end of Avinu Malkeinu, doesn’t it, God? IMANU. Make justice and kindness with us.

And I think I am beginning to understand now…

You may be Avinu, our Sacred Parent and Malkeinu, Our Sacred Sovereign, but you are also that lowly little bush who wants to inspire us to turn like Moses did, who wants us to step up and do the work of the world with you. Because you believe that justice is as much our responsibility as it is yours. And kindness, too. And mercy and love.

It is our world. We are responsible for it.

So we stand here now before you, Avinu Malkeinu. We stand here and we offer you our broken, but beating hearts and our commitment to love and mercy and justice and kindness and our sacred promise to keep trying.

We pat our pockets and all we have to offer in this grand moment… is us.

And because you are Avinu, our Loving Parent, I know that we will be enough.



[1] Exodus 3:4.
[2] Isaiah 58:5-7.
[3] Ezekiel 36:26.
[4] Micah 6:8.
[5] I owe my gratitude to Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) and his teachings through his book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, which undergird this sermon.
[6] Psalm 34:18.