Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Rabbi Elman's Final Yom Kippur Sermon at the Los Angeles Jewish Home
It is a month till my retirement: for me a time for a great deal of reflection. I want to tell you how I got here, and what I have got from here. I want to understand why my 9-year sojourn at the Home has been so special to me - a highlight of my life - and to see if you, as well as I, can find something to learn in this story.
So many places I could begin. Shall I tell you about the gently Orthodox home I grew up in? How I spent a year teaching in India between school and university, and how that perhaps – who knows? – gave me an injection of compassion?
Or maybe how, after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University (a period in which I embraced the rational and turned my back on religion), I entered one of those professions beloved of Jewish parents – the law? (I hastened to add that it was not my parents who urged me into that profession, it was my own decision based on a belief in the importance of financial security and social respectability (aspects of life that I soon came to realize were really my parents' values, rather than mine.)
I think my preferred start is how I left the law, and the successful firm I had started with a friend six years before. The words I uttered were: If I am going to spend my nights worrying, I would rather worry about something more worth-while than how much money my clients make from their contracts. I didn’t at that stage have biblical or “God-language” to understand that move, but now I would see it as a “lech-lecha” moment, as though God were tapping me on the shoulder and saying: time for a journey into the unknown.
My next step was to retrain and work as a social-worker – certainly a worth-while profession, but one in which I never really felt at home.
Along with my professional story, I also need to add in my health story, for it was around this time that I had my first diagnosis of – and treatment for – cancer in my eye.
Eight years after entering social work, I was off on my journey again, this time to a holistic centre for cancer patients, and a training in transpersonal (or spiritual) counseling. I was deeply affected by my work at the centre, but the major spiritual lesson was in my being fired from the centre by the medical director who felt my rivalry with him. It was a colleague, a wise healer, who helped me trust that what appeared to be a nasty blow was in fact the right path, and I needed to trust that path.
This became a central principle for me, and has been a teaching of mine here at the Home: when something bad (or apparently bad) happens, if I can trust it is right, then it will be right. This has guided me through the ups and downs of my life.
What did happen to me after having to leave the cancer centre was indeed for the good. I undertook a psychotherapy training and entered a long period of private practice as a psychotherapist. Also during this period I felt a pull back to my Jewish roots, joined a synagogue (an orthodox one, not unlike the shul of my childhood), and eventually became president of it.
There were also, over a short span of years, three bad experiences (ones which after the initial shock, I could once again accept as for the good) – the return of my cancer, a divorce not of my own choosing, and the loss of my eye.
These events took me on a new journey, to aliyah (at the age of 60) and a new life in Jerusalem where I immersed myself in Torah study - until the real purpose of my aliyah became clear. (After all, if we follow a journey not by preconceived plan but by following where we are led by God, we do not know what surprises God has in store for us.) I met Miriyam, came to Los Angeles with her, married her, entered an academy of Jewish learning and found that the place God had in fact led me to was a beautiful rabbinical training – not something I had ever intended.
I want to pause in my story a moment to ask: Who was this Anthony who was now studying to be a rabbi? The answer, I think, is much the same Anthony who had studied law 40 years before, though with different interests, knowledge and skills, and with a pleasure in Torah study that hadn’t developed when I was young.
I ask that question, because when I came to the Home a year or two later, first as an intern, then as acting rabbi, than as full rabbi, I believe a more profound change in me began to take place. If there is one word that can sum up that change, it is love.
I had certainly known love before – I had loved, and been loved by, parents and brothers, wider family, the women and the children in my life, dear friends…. But the person who has served the residents of the Jewish Home over these 8 or 9 years has found a whole new, and unexpected, part of himself – a gift from you residents and a gift from God.
I have come to realize that what has opened up in me, particularly at some of my services and classes, is a love for the residents that (I believe) makes space for God. I have never before known such joy as I feel in this work, which I think of as holy work. I learn that God’s Presence comes about within the connections of a group praying or singing or learning together; and that there are times when I may have a role in helping to allow this Divine Presence.
But it is not just in those holy moments of prayer or learning that I discover something new in myself: I feel a great love nearly all the times I am with residents.
People like to say to me that my previous professions of law, social work and psychotherapy prepared me for this work. In fact I believe these professions – at least law and social work, did little to prepare me for what has been my vocation here at the Home.
Psychotherapy more so, as that taught me how to listen.
It is true that through our lives, we develop new skills, new capacities, new attitudes. We do this while remaining basically the same person as we always were.
But also in our lives we may discover that wholly new aspects of ourselves have come to the fore that we were never aware of before, that we had never allowed to develop, that we had never imagined in ourselves. Because some aspects of ourselves lie hidden, in the shadows, in potential, perhaps waiting to be allowed to emerge, perhaps never to emerge.
This is my sense of what happened to me here. For the love that I feel here is unlike anything I have felt before, and the person I am leading services or other events, or teaching classes, is a person I don’t recognize at all from my previous life – or even from my current life outside the Home!
This way of being gives me such joy, such a touching of the divine – and I hope allowing others to touch the divine – that it is no wonder I speak frequently about my feeling of being blessed and my gratitude for this opportunity to be more than I have been before, and more than I had ever dreamed of being.
I want to ask you a question: how often have you ruled out some new activity or study or practice or music, with the words: that’s not me. I’m embarrassed to admit I do that sometimes, though I am trying to let go of that habit. I now believe that “who I am” – “who each of us is” – is much less limited and narrow than we tend to think. There are all sorts of possibilities in us waiting to emerge, if only we choose not to think of ourselves as narrowly defined, and allow ourselves to discover the hidden aspects of who we could be.
I have never accepted that residents, just because they are advancing in years, or have some disability, or simply by reason of their living in an institution, are now stuck in their progress through life. Far from it! Pages of our personal book of life remain to be written, new chapters remain to be discovered. Rather than choose what should come next, I invite you to be open to allowing all sorts of possibilities. We can want and plan what we know about. But allowing is about letting aspects of who we are emerge that we may never have dreamed about.
I am going to paraphrase two popular figures in the Jewish story: God and Al Jolson.
First God, at the moment he selected Abraham to have a special role in the development of God’s scheme for humanity: Lech lecha, God said, leave behind everything that is familiar and go to a place in yourself which you do not yet know but I will show you.
As for Al Jolson, he virtually ended the silent movie era and ushered in the era of the talkies, when he called to the orchestra, on screen in "The Jazz Singer": You ain’t heard nothing yet!
Well, you tell your families and everyone who treats you as though you had stopped growing: You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Good luck on your journey!
Rabbi Anthony Elman - October 2014