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7 Things I Learned about Teshuvah from Moving to New York City

SAJ, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Every year, as we move toward a New Year and into a new High Holiday season, I am awed by the majesty and power of these sacred days.  Our tradition asks us to dig deep inside our souls so that we can return to being the best and most authentic versions of ourselves.  We are asked to forgive and to be forgiven, to challenge ourselves to grow in new ways. 

In the course of my rabbinate and my life, I have studied many beautiful and inspiring texts and prayers about the meaning of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, and about teshuva, the process or reflection, renewal and change that is at the heart of these days. Even so, I often find that I learn the most about teshuvah and the power of the High Holidays from experiences in my life.

Tonight, I want to share a tradition that I had in my former congregation.  Every few years- often when I had a major life change or learned through life experiences, I would share seven things I learned about teshuvah and the High Holidays through that experience.  I shared insights into teshuvah one year after becoming a mother and after surviving the throes of parenting a pre-schooler. 

This year, as this community knows, I experienced another major life event: moving from one city to another.  I lived in Philadelphia as an adult for fifteen years, met my husband there, established my career there, owned two different homes (one at a time) and had our two children there.  We had good friends and good neighbors.  We weren’t necessarily planning on moving.  But once-in-about-a-lifetime, an opportunity arises that makes moving oneself, one’s family and all their worldly possessions seem worthwhile.  And then – in what seemed like a blink of an eye– we told our children and friends, put our house up for sale and sold it, gave away a whole lot of stuff, packed up all the rest into boxes, and moved into an apartment in Manhattan.   

As everyone who has ever done it knows, moving is very stressful.  Moving to a new city for a new job is stressful, exciting, scary, challenging and invigorating.  And as the clichés tell us, dramatic life experiences are also learning lessons.  Through it all, I have gained new insights into what this season is all about.  Even though the experiences are my own, I hope they are universal in their application and can inform us as we move into this holiday season on the lessons and possibilities of teshuvah. 

Here are 7 lessons I have learned about Teshuvah & the High Holidays from moving to NYC:

Keep what’s important, give away the rest. 

In the process of moving, our first step needed to be putting our Philadelphia house on the market.  But, as many advised, in order to make our house look attractive to a potential buyer, we needed to either hide or get ride of half of our stuff.  To remind you, we do have two children, then 7 and 3 and they are “stuff magnets.”  I cannot recount how many times I have purchased a $1, 2 or more expensive toy to keep them from screaming at a store.  Even though we try to be careful in our consumption, there is inevitably a lot of “stuff.”

We went through toy after toy, arts supply after arts supply, moving the piles: “keep” “trash” or “give away.”  After many late nights, we did it!  And the house looked fabulous and sold after three days.  Then, even after the house sold with its more modest amount of stuff, we visualized the NYC apartment we signed paperwork for and realized had to do it all over again.  This time we also went through grown-up-stuff and boxes of memories, papers, and collections.  As taxing as this was, it was incredibly liberating.  In this process, we were able to really see and take hold of what was important to us.  And as for what wasn’t important, we simply said “goodbye” and haven’t looked back since. 

Leading up to and during the high holidays, we engage in what’s called heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls.  Along with looking at the ways we have missed the mark, this process offers us the chance to look at our lives and to remember what is really important to us.  This can be a physical cleansing or a loosening of ties with unhealthy relationships or it could be a spiritual exploration. 

What are things that we are holding on that really aren’t really important to us anymore?  What is that we really need in life, instead of what we think we need?  What ideas do we need to leave behind in the New Year, perhaps ideas about others or about ourselves that do not help us?  The High Holidays are an opportunity for us to consider what is important to us and encourage us to give away that which no longer serves us.

You cannot do this work alone.

While moving, I found the adage to be true: it takes a village.  I literally would not be standing here were it not for the help of family and friends that made the closing of one life and the opening of another possible.  In particular, we had friends who helped us pack, others who watched our kids so we could pack more efficiently, yet others who brought us food so we wouldn’t have one more thing to worry about. 

And before we left, we lined people up on the New York City side: a friend from rabbinical school helped us unpack our kitchen, another friend assembled furniture side by side, and yet other friends helped feed us in the rush to unpack before our children were brought by their grandparents.  I tend to be a person who likes to take care of business by myself, but in this project called “major life change,” I quickly realized that would have been impossible.  The support of friends and family made all the difference.

Every year, I am struck by the paradox that is at the heart of these holidays.  They are deeply personal and introspective; at the same time, we do this work of looking inward, asking hard questions, and attempting to change inside the container of community.  We do this because the truth of the matter is: we need each other.  We need each other to lift our prayers and our spirits higher; we need each other to keep us accountable to our intentions and actions; and we need each other as support to get through life, which is full of heartache and challenges as well as joys and blessings.  The High Holidays remind us that we are deeply interconnected with one another – and that we need a village, a community to help us manifest our best selves. 

See and appreciate the people you love.

I know this is going to sound completely crazy, but the process of moving actually strengthened my marriage.  Making this very intense decision and having to execute all the different parts of leaving and arriving meant that both my husband and I were going to have to step up to the task. And through this process, I saw my partner working diligently to make our move a reality.  And what’s more, I watched him do things that I could never in a million years have done myself.  For example, his mathematical and problem-solving brain had him come up and plan out every inch of our NYC apartment and then take trip after trip to IKEA (which to be fair is his happy place) to buy the exact thing we needed to get our most important possessions into an apartment.

Through this process, I felt like I saw Jon with new eyes.  And it helped me realized the ways in which I take him for granted on a daily basis.  I began to notice again the little and big things that he does to make our life work.  And to appreciate the things that make him unique from me- including his ability to assemble lots and lots of IKEA furniture.

Our tradition tells of two kinds of teshuvah: ben adam l’makom – between a person and God and ben adam l’havero– between a person and her fellow.  The latter kind of teshuvah invites us to look at our relationships and to see where we might need tikkun (repair) or healing or where we might need more openness or acceptance in order to experience love. 

I find that one of the ways I often miss the mark is taking the people in my life for granted.  When I am rushing through my life, busy and distracted, it can be difficult to appreciate those in my life.  In teshuva, I focus on my relationships and try to cultivate greater appreciation for them. Increasing our gratitude is not a trifle thing– it can impact the way that we interact and react, the way we give and receive.   It can change our very sense of connectedness and our ability to feel and be loved.

Getting Lost and Asking for Help.

One strange thing about moving to a new place is that you cease to know where anything is.  This sounds funny and maybe it is a little, but for the person experiencing it, it is actually pretty disconcerting.  It is hard to feel like you are “home” when you cannot navigate your way around or get back to your apartment without consulting GPS (and even with GPS, you get lost!). 

Even with the wonderful grid that is NYC, I cannot count how many times I got lost within the first few weeks of being here.  Or that I took the wrong subway.  Or as was most often the case, I would get out of the wrong exit from the subway station- the one on the opposite side from my apartment or from SAJ.  At first, I was frustrated, and even a little nostalgic for being in a place where I knew how to get anywhere I needed to go. 

I learned (or: rather re-learned) to do something I don’t always like to do: ask for help.  Was this train going uptown?  Was this the right direction?  The right stop?  I also asked people for less practical advice- where was good to eat in this particular neighborhood?  This process was very humbling and reminded me that it is both OK and valuable to ask for help.

The ikar (essence) of the High Holidays is turning and returning, which involves at times changing our ways, at times confronting parts of ourselves we don’t love to let out into the light.  At times, we may be struggling with something painful in our lives or in our hearts and not sure what do to.  At times like this, we are reminded that we need to ask for help.  Some of us feel comfortable turning to God; others to friends, family, spouses, children.  But there is something transformative in the asking itself.  Typically, as soon as we ask for help, our burdens become a little lighter.  At this season, when we want to change our selves and our world, it is a time in which we are reminded that in order to move forward in our lives, we will need to ask for help. 

You are stronger than you think.

When we decided to move, I worried most about how my children would take the news.  My daughter, then 7, had gone to the same school for three years and had established real bonds with lots of kids.  She also had one best friend with whom she spent as much of her waking free time with as we would agree to.  My son, then 3, also had close friends, but more importantly, he really responds to structure and had not historically responded well to change.  Of course, the kids had many emotions.  Aviel would proclaim, “I am excited and happy and sad and nervous at the same time.”  Through the process of telling them, packing with them, I kept waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop.  I waited and waited and waited.  And so far, no major meltdowns, freak outs, melancholy.  I kept waiting until I realized- these kids are actually coping just fine.

The process of change that is at the heart of the high holidays is really challenging.  Often, I think we are held back by our own fears.  Fears of not being good enough; fears of not being able to handle making changes that we need to make.  Perhaps we are afraid of taking the next move in our career or making the decision to retire, for fear that we cannot handle what will come down the road. 

But I want to share the torah of moving my children: we may be stronger than we think.  We can do this work – we can take the steps we need, sometimes we just have to let go and trust.    

Break out of routine.  Explore and be curious.

Jon and I have established a rule for our first year in New York: Never eat at the same restaurant twice.  Sure, we could only establish this rule if we moved to an exciting and big city like New York and not Kansas (although maybe in Kansas too?).  In a new place and in the city that never sleeps, we are trying to cultivate a spirit of curiosity and adventure.  This is not only true in terms of culinary decisions; we have been making an effort to explore our neighborhood and the city, including choosing varied routes to get to the park and seeking out new places to have family adventures. A friend who has been living in the city since 1999 remarked, “I think you have done more New York things in one month than I have done in 15 years!”    

When we lived in Philadelphia, another great city, we of course had our “places” and our “routines.”  With moving came an opportunity to break out of routines; it has been opportunity to be curious about my surroundings, to seek out new adventures and to stay open to the world in a new way.

Rosh HaShanah is called “HaYom Harat Olam” the day the world was born.  Our tradition teaches us that this is the New Year, and because of this, we have the chance to start over again, with a brand new year.  And when we finish Neilah on Yom Kippur, we have this amazing opportunity to really let go of the past and look forward to a new year. 

On the New Year, our tradition teaches, we truly get the chance to start again, refreshed and renewed.  Sure, the external circumstances of our lives might not have changed so much – but we have the chance the start again.  We have the chance to bring a spirit of curiosity to the world, to our lives.  We have the chance to bring a spirit of adventure to our lives.  We have the power to break free of routines and habits or at least to not only rely on them to guide our lives.  With the holidays comes the possibility of a newness that can inspire a new way of looking at the world.  What new possibility is awaiting you in this New Year? 

Change does happen, even if we don’t realize.

About two weeks ago, I was on the train to SAJ when someone asked me a question.  “Does this train go to 81st Street?” a young man with a camera around his neck asked me.  Here I was in my work attire, looking, I suppose from his vantage point, like I belonged here.  I smiled and answered affirmatively.  About an hour later I was reflecting on this exchange and realizing that this was no small interaction.  This was a sign that I had made it!  I was able to give directions to a tourist on the subway!  In that moment, I realized I had gone from temporary resident to citizen.

In the process of growth and change, we cannot often see the full trajectory or comprehend what’s happening under the surface.  We are actually growing and changing and expanding ourselves in new ways, but often the change is subtle.  For me, the process of teshuvah is about striving to do better and it is also about recognizing the hard work we are already doing.  We have this magical, expansive time to spend in services to pray, to sing, and to let our minds wander.  I hope and pray that in that time, we can gift ourselves the chance to reflect on the ways we ARE different this year than the last and to honor the work we do on a regular basis to be the best people we can be.  Let’s take the time and take note of the small and big changes in our lives; I believe if we do, we will see that whether we have noticed or not, we are growing and changing.

There is a Hebrew saying that goes: M’shane Makom, M’shane Mazal– Change your place, change your luck.  I have been blessed with the challenging and rewarding opportunity of moving a family and beginning a new life in a new place.  I hope that the lessons I learned in this process will illuminate your journey in the days to come.

May we be blessed on these days.  May we turn and return in ways that invite us to challenge ourselves, break from our habits, realize what is important to us, ask for help, seek out community, realize our own strength, and honor our growth.  May our days, our spirits, and our visions be renewed.  Amen!

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