Rabbi Shapiro, September 30, 2018


Sermon for September 30, 2018 Video

Distracted!?!

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro

Many of you already know how important this time of year is for Jews.  It is our Jewish new year.
From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – Ten days packed with the drama and energy of a full year.
So it was about a month ago that Marsha and I found ourselves planning for what are called the High Holidays, and, since this was going to be my successor’s first holiday season, we decided to opt for some separation. On Yom Kippur, we would go to Sinai Temple here in 01108.  But on Rosh Hashanah we decided to attend services in New York City.
As the saying goes, I would be an anonymous “Jew in the pew.”
The decision seemed to be wise and simple.
Except as a Jew in the pew I discovered something unexpected. I realized how easy it is to be distracted in the sanctuary.
How so?
Because it turns out that there is a lot going on in the pews during a service… to be exact, somewhere around row 25 which is where Marsha and I found ourselves sitting on Rosh Hashanah.
Not that the clergy weren’t excellent. They were. It’s just that row 24 put on a very fine show as well.
First, mom and dad senior were themselves distracted in front of us as they saved seats and waited for their adult son and wife to arrive. I lost track of how many times dad stood up, looked, left the sanctuary to look for the late comers, returned, and then left again.
For the sake of peace, I too hoped the missing couple would show up as soon as possible. And … some 20 minutes into the service … hallelujah! They arrived.
But talk about distractions.
It was apparent as soon as the couple arrived that the daughter-in-law was angry. She barely acknowledged the family. She did not open the prayer book.
Meanwhile, five seats to her right, her mother-in-law more or less retreated from the service herself. The rabbi offered a beautiful introduction to a central prayer of the morning, invited all of us to rise and pray together, and guess what happened? Mom stood up but clearly had no interest in the moment. She tried to catch someone’s eye in the balcony. She chatted with her daughter beside her.
Did I mention the word distracted? She was distracted and she was distracting.
I loved the New York service, but, to be honest, I was in and out. I was present but absent at some level throughout that morning.
And here is the strange reality. When Marsha and I got to services at our own Sinai Temple in Springfield, I was distracted again.
This time around it happened at the morning service as Marsha and I innocently sat down. A moment later one of the congregation’s senior members sat down beside me. This was all well and good – except for the fact that this senior citizen has a severe case of dementia. That meant that during the service she frequently leaned over to turn the pages of my prayer book and also to take my hand and kiss it.
On the one hand, I was touched by her warmth. On the other hand, I was only trying to be a Jew in the pew and the whole scenario was distracting.
Of course, I know something else.  I’m not the only one who gets distracted.  Sitting here in our sanctuary right now I know there are at least a handful of parishioners who are distracted.  Some are not paying attention right now even as I speak about staying focused.
And it’s not just in services that our minds wander.
Only a few days ago as I was driving by the high school closest to where I live, my mind wandered.  The football team was out on the field practicing.  My eyes followed them as I thought fondly about those days when my son played football and so on and so forth…until I turned back to the road only to realize that I was driving almost directly into my neighbor’s car in front of me.  I jammed on the brakes in time, but I think you get the point.
Distracted driving almost killed me.
And so it goes.
Remember the heat of the last few months?  We’re at the beach unwinding.  We can feel the ocean breeze and smell the salt water.  We order some lunch.  We do so and whatever it is we’ve purchased comes encased in plastic containers.  We take it, but, as we are making our way to a table, it occurs to me that I’ve been distracted.  I know better than to waste plastic.  Yet here I am ready to dump various kinds of plastic into the garbage.
I’m so busy that the calendar has a way of ambushing me.  I’m so focused on surviving days filled with obligations that, like you, I wake up to discover it’s the day after someone’s birthday or it’s only one day before someone’s anniversary.
Distracted.  I forgot.
And, if you are married or if you have a very close friend, how many times have you neglected to say thank you or you mean something special to me?  We take people for granted.  We pay attention to the trivial and forget what counts above all else.
In a word, we get distracted.
Mary Oliver, the New England poet, writes an essay about distraction.   She opens with a simple description of what she calls “a silver morning.”  She’s at her desk trying to create a poem.  She is searching for the right words when the doorbell rings and, before she knows it, she’s gone to the door and the thought she had in mind minutes ago is gone.  Disappeared.
Oliver comments that she believes she may actually be three people in one.  True, sometimes someone else interrupts her train of thought, but, more often than not, she is her own worst enemy.
There is a child insider her, writes Oliver.  She herself is in her 70’s, but she feels as if there is still inside her the curiosity and wildness of a little girl.  It’s a glint in the eye.  It’s the urge to run outside and play.  Ready at any moment to interrupt.
 But that’s not all.  Oliver says she is also inhabited by an attentive, social self.  “This is the person,” she writes, “that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments…It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligations.”
This second self is married to the clock and schedules.  This second self takes care of the regular.  Gets us up in the morning.  Urges us to eat grapefruit as opposed to a chocolate bar.  Makes sure we do our homework and behave.
Very important tasks.  The child wants to kick back; the social self insists on order and discipline.
And then comes the third person within all of us.
Oliver doesn’t have a single name for the third character.  She rather describes this third voice as the creative voice…the risk taker…the artist.  This third self knows human beings need to be organized.  We can’t all go to the concert, which is why we need to buy tickets and stand in line.
Except that’s not what the third persona wants to do.
He or she wants to sit in the front row.  He or she wants to sing along with the performer.  He or she wants to wear black in the summer and glorious pink on the shortest, coldest days of December.
Got a rule?
Persona #3 will joyfully break your rule or create a brand-new rule better than all other rules.
And here’s the problem.  You can’t be a whole person without all three selves functioning all at once inside you.  Sometimes co-existing.  (You’re brushing your teeth.)  Sometimes exploding.  (Who wants to brush her teeth when the sun is shining outdoors?) The selves jostle each other.  Interrupt each other.  They distract you.
They lead to what we might call “distracted living,” which is quite delicious and exciting but also jangled and frantic.
Maybe that is why one of the great biblical texts holds out a model for our living.  I’m thinking about the Burning Bush story.  It comes at the beginning of the Book of Exodus where Moses is shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law.  Moses is out in the desert when, according to Scripture, he sees a bush that is burning but not being consumed. I think you know what happens next.
Moses goes off the beaten path to get closer to this mysterious Bush.  As he gets right up to the Bush, Moses hears a voice.  It is God telling Moses he must go back to Egypt to free his people.
From one perspective, this is just a fancy story about God’s appearance to Moses.  But think again with me and we’ll discover something else closer to our own needs.  For if you consider the story carefully, I think you’ll discover something that lets the whole process develop.
It is Moses.
He had to see the Bush AND do something additional. He had to focus on the Bush long enough to notice that it wasn’t only burning.  It burned without being consumed.  Would that take 30 seconds?  Or perhaps 3 minutes? Or even longer?
Would the whole story have been possible unless Moses took the time to notice what was around him?
Unless Moses stilled the various voices inside him and paid attention.
Unless Moses was not distracted.
Forget the Bush itself.  The story is there to tell us that Moses got to God…got to an important challenge…because he paused.  He looked at the world with wide open eyes.
He overcame distraction and really connected with where and who he was.
I love that story and its image of Moses – the man who was not distracted.
I love a passage a few chapters later in the Moses story when Moses is asked to go up Mount Sinai to receive the commandments.  What’s fascinating about Scripture is that it doesn’t only share God’s directive to Moses that he come up the mountain for the commandments.  Rather, the text tells us that God says, “Come up on the mountain, be there, and I will give you the commandments.”
“Come up on the mountain, be there, and I will give you the commandments.”
What’s curious about this verse?  It’s that phrase in the middle.  You see the verse could read – “Come up on the mountain and I will give you the commandments.”
But it doesn’t read that way… Instead the verse reads…“Come up on the mountain, be there, and I will give you the commandments.”
Why does it say that?  Lest Moses think he can receive the commandments the way you or I go shopping for laundry detergent at Big Y.  No particular thought.  We just find the correct aisle and grab the box we want.
Scripture is saying no to that mentality.  You don’t get the commandments.  You actually don’t get God.  Unless you are present to the moment.  You’ve got to be there.  Be present.
Or in our terms today, you’ve got to be focused.  You can’t let yourself be distracted.
That’s what I believe.
That’s what I strive for.
That’s what I think our religious traditions push us towards knowing.
That the most important parts of life require focus.
That the most beautiful parts of life require attention.
That the best parts of being alive require that we drop distractions.
That we learn to say thank you, I care about you, I love you.
I am here.
*************
May I tell you something surprising?  I figured all this out last weekend while sitting at the memorial service for Dean Callard’s dad right here in this sanctuary.
 Just before the Eucharist one of Tom’s family members sang the following song in Spanish.  The words were translated in our programs, however, and they said it all.
Pay attention.  With the tiniest of revisions, I want to share them with you.
Dare I say it – Don’t be distracted.  Here is the poem.
Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
Two stars which when I open them
Let me distinguish black from white
And in the highest heaven the starry background
And in the multitudes those I truly love.
Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
The ear that in all its width
Records night and day, crickets and canaries,
Hammers, turbines, barks, squalls.
And the tender voice of those I love.
Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
The sound and the alphabet.
With words that I think and declare.
Mother, friend, brother, and light shining
To the roots of the souls of those I love.
Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
The progress of my tired feet.
With them I have walked cities and puddles,
Beaches and deserts, mountains and plains.
And your house, your street, and your yard.
Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It gives me the heart which moves this frame,
When I look at the fruit of the human brain
When I look at the good so far from the bad
When I look into the clear eyes of those I love.
Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
It has given me laughter and it has given me tears.
So I distinguish the bliss from the breakdown
The song that you sing is the song that I sing.
Thanks to life, which has given me so much.
*************
All it takes is patience and devotion.
All it takes is gratefulness.
Pay attention.  Stop distractions.
Thanks for so much that makes today and every day a blessed day.
Thanks to life, which gives us all so much.

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