Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann Last year at this time, I stood in front of this…
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
I would like to invite you to stop whatever you are doing, stop fiddling with your computer or papers in front of you for a moment and just rest for a moment. Find a comfortable seat, feel your feet on the ground. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes. Invite you to take a deep breath in, a deep breath out. After an extraordinarily hard year, filled with loss and illness, we have made it to this moment. No small feat! A miracle, in fact.
Tonight, we usher in the holiest day of the year — a day in which we confront the fragility of life head on; a day that is supposed to jolt us and catapult us back into our lives with greater awareness, open-heartedness — with greater aliveness.
Often, or at least from time to time- I hope- Yom Kippur does just this! As we hear the final shofar blast at the end of the Ne’ilah (Yom Kippur final) service, we feel fired up and ready to go! And we emerge from the holiday with the intention to embrace the fullness of life and live each day with purpose and intention.
And…after a few months or perhaps weeks or perhaps days, we typically return to old habits and old ways of being. We inevitably take loved ones for granted, daydream about the ways we wish life would be, or feel burdened. Our renewed zest for life fades.
Tonight, I want to talk about a powerful practice that can help us hold onto the spirit of the Days of Awe throughout the year, that may aid us in our quest to live with greater awareness of the preciousness of each day.
This is the practice of pausing, of creating space for new feelings and possibilities to emerge. Pausing, even for a brief moment and even some of the time, has the potential for significant impact.
In the words of Pema Chödrön, Buddhist teacher and author: “Pause practice (which she defines as taking three breaths) can transform each day of your life. It creates an open doorway to the sacredness of the place in which you find yourself….If you pause just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are, with the immediacy of your experience.”
Pause practice is not just a Buddhist or modern mindfulness practice.
Is a foundational idea in our tradition and Torah, from quite literally “the beginning.”
“On the seventh day, God ceased from all the work of creation…God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy..”
כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכׇּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ —
“Because on it, God ceased from doing all the work of creation.”
As Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg teaches, that Shabbat comes after the Creation of humanity to teach us that “Pausing is not an option. Pausing is part of the plan.”
Yom Kippur is also known as Shabbat Shabbaton!” The same Hebrew word- ceasing, stopping, pausing. Thus, we might translate Shabbat Shabbaton as “The Day of Ultimate Cessation”, or “The Day That is One Long Pause.” Pausing is the primary work of the day! Pausing is how we get to transformation — to embracing life.
This is true on Yom Kippur — and it is also true in every moment.
There are many ways to speak about the practice of pausing. Tonight, I focus on pausing as a tool to disrupt negative patterns and enable us to feel greater presence, joy, connection, and determination. In particular, I will speak about:
-Pausing as way of Waking up to our Lives and to Each Other
-Pausing as a way of Facing what needs to be Faced and Discerning the Way Forward
Pausing as way of Waking up to our Lives and to Each Other
I share two personal stories. The first:
It’s late on a Friday afternoon. I take out two freshly made loaves of challah and place them on the table under a beautiful cover. I put a delicious chicken dish in the oven, along with potato kugel and vegetables. I take out the white tablecloth, wine stained from Shabbatot and holidays. I have thought about replacing it — but the wine stains hold memories I do not want to let go of. My children come to help me set up the table. When everyone is ready and gathered, I light the candles. We sing Shalom Aleichem and bless our children. My oldest child recites the long kiddush and I am so proud! We wash our hands, sing a wordless melody and recite the motzei. We eat. Our guests add wisdom to our table, and I watch my youngest engaging meaningfully. After dessert, we sing a song, with requisite table banging and offer a short blessing for the meal we have just eaten together. While there are many dishes to do, I rest for a moment, feeling deeply satisfied.
It’s Friday at 5:30pm. I text my husband Jon: “Did you pick up a challah?” Jon texts back a simple “no.” I reply: “Ok, I think we have two hamburger buns.”
5:35pm: I travel home and feverishly start to prepare food. Looking all around all our cabinets and drawers, I declare to no one in particular: “Oy! We are out of grape juice. Ok, we will just use lemonade this week. “It’s ok” I tell myself, “the kids hate the grape juice anyway.”
6:20pm: I turn to both children and say: “Shut off the device! For the 100th time in the last ten minutes, shut it off — we are about to have Shabbat dinner.”
6:30pm. I hear a whimpering:“Mom, I am soooo hungry, I cannot wait to eat.” Jon and I exchange a few knowing looks. I declare: “Let’s do the short version tonight.” Candles, one-line kiddush, and motzei- viola Dinner!
6:45pm: Teen gets up from the table, to which I say: “You didn’t ask to be excused!” which then leads to the question: “Well, can I be excused?” With desperation I look back at said teen: “Do you want to play a family board game?” He responds: “No, I am going to go to my room.” I look at Jon with exasperation and say: “Ok, you can be excused.”
Dinner is now over. Shabbat shalom everyone!!
The first story I shared is the vision of Shabbat that I had set for myself when I was 23 years old, single and childless — living in Jerusalem and observing Shabbat in community.
The second story is a scene from a recent Shabbat in the Grabelle Herrmann household.
Admittedly, Shabbat can be challenging at this time in our life — but what’s worse than any given experience of Shabbat is the fact that I am so rarely “there” at all.
I am not present, with the people I am most intimate with and love the most in the world — instead I am in a twenty-two year old fantasy of what my Shabbat was supposed to look like. Of how my partner and kids were supposed to be. I feel dissatisfied, deflated, even depressed. If that were not enough, my mind starts to spin and spin — and as soon as we have said HaMotzei, I have questioned all the decisions that I have ever made that led to the present moment.
However, every once in a while, I am able to disrupt this well-established pattern with a pause. I step out of the drama and look to see what’s going on.
When I pause and recognize my fantasy for what it is, it no longer has a hold on me. Where there was guilt and disappointment, empathy emerges. I recognize how hard it is for two busy, working parents (especially one whose job it is to support Shabbat for others!) to make Shabbat. I can recognize that my teenager has a whole other set of priorities that are different than my own. And I notice small and sweet things happening around me, that I would otherwise be unaware of.
Instead of feeling regret and self-pity (which is very present when I am in the fantasy), I feel grateful. How lucky am I to live this life, with these three humans at the center of it?
Pausing is so powerful. In an instant, we can wake up to our lives and to the people in them.
This notion has grounding in our sacred texts. It is well known that when it is time to find a leader who can take the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt, God appears (in the Torah) in the form of a bush that is on fire but is not consumed. The Torah already indicates that Moses pauses and makes a decision to turn towards the Burning Bush for upon seeing it, Moses says to himself: “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?”
A midrash adds another layer, telling us that there were others who passed by the burning bush and did not notice. Moses was special because he was the one who paused, turned, and took in the sight of the burning bush.
If we pause and awaken to what is in front of us, we — like Moses — might come to see that the ground on which we stand, THIS place, is holy ground.
Pausing as a way of Facing what Needs to be Faced and Discerning the Way Forward
A story from the Talmud:
One time, Rabban Gamliel was traveling on a boat in an expanse of water. From a distance, he saw that another boat had shattered. Rabban Gamliel was overcome by immense grief because on that boat was a torah scholar — none other than Rabbi Akiva, a follower, friend, and hevruta (study partner) of Rabban Gamliel and one of, if not the, greatest scholars of all time.
A few hours later, Rabban Gamliel disembarked from his boat onto dry land and looked ahead. Could it be? Was he seeing correctly? It was none other than Rabbi Akiva himself! And Rabbi Akiva was running towards him deliberating before Rabban Gamliel about the intricacies of a particular Jewish law.
With equal parts shock and delight, Rabban Gamliel asked Akiva: “My son, who brought you up from the water? Who saved you?”
Rabbi Akiva replied: “A plank from the boat came before me. I grabbed onto it. And to every wave that came towards me, I bent my head to every wave until I reached the shore.”
And as I poured over this story, which has become very personally meaningful, I imagined all the steps that were not explicitly written into the parable. I imagined all the pauses that were necessary for Rabbi Akiva to find his way to the shore.
There must have been a moment when his boat first shattered, when he bobbed up from the depths of the water. I can see in my mind’s eye Rabbi Akiva thrashing around in the water to no avail and recognizing that if he continued to do that, he would never survive.
Then, I imagine he paused, looked around and that is when he saw the plank. Holding onto the plank for deal life, he encounters the waves again and must pause to make a decision. He can fight the waves or he can bend his head at each one and allows himself to be carried to safety.
Whether right now or at some other point in our lives, we have all been Rabbi Akiva. We have all had our boats shattered — our best laid plans overturned, our hopes for the future swept under by tragedy or illness or loss or some other significant interruption outside of our control (perhaps a global pandemic!). And if we don’t pause, or if we continue to thrash around without discernment of what the pathway forward it, we may not make it through, physically or spiritually.
A few years ago, I counseled a women who for a variety of reasons had become the sole caregiver of her ailing mother. When we first met, she shared that caregiving for her mother was enriching and satisfying — she felt like she was giving back to her mother some of the love and care she had received from her throughout her lifetime. A few months later, the woman came back to me and described her utter exhaustion and burnout. We sat together for a while, and I invited her to pause and consider what it was she needed to get through this difficult time. In the space of that pause, she realized that her sense of obligation was getting in the way of getting the help she needed — for her mom and for herself.
A few weeks later, we met again. While she reported that the situation remained challenging, she also said: “I feel much better, knowing I am doing everything I can. And most importantly, my mom and I are now enjoying each other’s company again, smiling, laughing, looking at old photos. Now I have to just get through it, moment by moment.”
Moment by moment. Wave by wave.
When we are going through a hard time, it is often the most difficult time to pause. in fact, in those times, we will do almost anything to keep busy so we don’t have to think about what’s going on.
Yet, it is precisely when we pause and step outside the situation that we see clearly both the challenges and the lifelines (the planks) that can carry us through. It is in those pauses, that we might learn to bend our heads at the tumultuous waves instead of fighting against them, allowing us to embrace life even when it is hard.
I began in Genesis, sharing that pausing is part of the very design of Creation. In Exodus, another formulation of Divine rest is articulated: “Uvayom HaShishi, Shavat Vayinafash.”
Vayinafash comes from the root “nefesh” — soul. Most literally we can translate this to “God ceased from doing and was resouled.”
Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory played on the shared root of nefesh — “soul” — and n’shama — “breath” — and translated this verse as “God stopped and exhaled.”
We learn from Divine modeling the power of stopping the action of our lives and taking even just one breath.
Tonight, we usher into a 25 hour period of pause. May we use it well. Tonight, I invite you to consider that the practice of pause is available not only in this cathedral of time, but in every moment.
May we find and cultivate the ability to step back from the action of our lives and to simply be. And on that other side of that pause, may we be blessed to awaken to connection, love, joy, hope, steadfastness — and all that we need to live our lives fully and deeply, with meaning and purpose.
Pema Chödrön: https://www.lionsroar.com/take-three-conscious-breaths/
First Creation Story: Genesis 2:1–3
Burning Bush: Exodus 3:3, Midrash Shemot Rabba 2:5 “‘To him.’ What does “to him” [imply]? To teach that other men were with him, yet only Moses saw. So too it is written regarding Daniel: “And only I Daniel saw the vision.” (Daniel 10:7).
Rabbi Akiva Story: A dramatized version of the incredible story in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 121a
See One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi by Alan Lew and Sherril Jaffee & Be Still and Keep Going, Alan Lew.