Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black

Happiness and the Chai Challenge

Some things are counter-intuitive.  If you want something done, ask a busy person.  A placebo is 80 percent as effective as Prozac.  Collective brainstorming is not as effective as doing it on your own.  And it's the little things that make us happy, not the big ones.

In Rabbi Neuberger’s book ‘Is that all there is?’, she examines friendship.  Being a friend is certainly a changing role – and some people are addicted to gathering a larger and larger list of friends on Facebook or other social networks who, in the conventional sense of the word, are no such thing.  I am often forced by an impersonal and intrusive computer program to have to categorise someone as a friend, an acquaintance or part of an interest circle.  It depends – what if they are both – sorry, not allowed!  At what point does a colleague or an acquaintance become a friend – and does it have to be mutual?  Can I promote someone to being a friend yet be content if they keep me as an acquaintance?  Although we might think it contradictory to consider someone we pay to be a friend, there is a growing trend to rent friendship, whether an occasional visitor, or a dinner or theatre companion.  And whilst the person paying them might like to think of them as being a friend, it is likely that that feeling will not be equally reciprocated.  Jenny, who works for RentaFriend.com in New York, says she’d be open to transitioning from being a rented friend to a regular one - but she hadn’t yet met anyone she liked enough to do so!  But the possibility is always there that they might find much in common and develop a shared history, and family stories and celebrations, and eventually become mutually close friends.  Would the continued payment for service be an impediment to that, or would it cease?

There are other examples too: people who we pay for their skills and services, not directly for friendship – the physiotherapist, the music teacher, the counselor, the coach.  Some of these will also include more physical contact than we would normally have with a close friend.  Although it is a professional relationship at least initially, it is not uncommon for people to become close friends over the years.

Friends are precious, and friendship takes time.  Actually the reason I came to Australia in the first place was because throughout her adult life, my mother kept up a friendship almost entirely through air mail letter correspondence with a school friend who moved to Sydney.  Every three or four months, a thick envelope of thin pages would arrive, and I then recall my mother plotzing for ages because she hadn’t written back!  Today the speed of communication is even faster, but it still takes a good deal of time to keep up with friends, and I doubt if we do it as well as they did!  It is important though, and indeed a friend of ours is visiting us from the UK next month on her first trip to Australia.  However good new friendships are, it still true that you can’t make new old friends!

We should also acknowledge that, though sometimes friendship just happens, at other times or for other people it is often hard to make friends.  It may well be one of those skills we learn from our parents – or don’t, perhaps if they were not very adept at it themselves.  School children can be terribly cruel at freezing newcomers out.  There are also rules for friendship, and they are often subtly different from family to family or culture to culture.  By the way, the word for friend in Hebrew is Chaver – hence Chavurah is friendship, and the purpose of our chavurah meals is to get to know each other better and make friends.  It was recently pointed out to me that Cobber comes from Chaver, and though I am a little dubious, the suggestion is that it was brought back from Palestine with the Light Horse brigade.  Although those brave soldiers had special bonds to their horses, it is often said that a man’s best friend is his dog – perhaps incidentally an observation that women tend to find support and friendship more easily – I should admit that I don’t much enjoy being jumped upon, licked and slobbered over, let alone growled at!  I think I was once chased or bitten by a large dog when I was a small boy on the way home from school!  But of course it is not uncommon to find people who get great joy and companionship from dogs or cats, and I have heard it said more than once that they prefer them to the moods and vagaries of humans, and I can see the companionship and mutual unconditional love that often develops between a person and their pet!

As I said earlier, friendships take time.  It might not, though, be exclusive time.  For example, friends might meet at a book group, or to play tennis, or to go away on holiday.  Even very busy people often still manage to have many friends, though others may feel they have no one close.  It is not uncommon, especially for women, to suddenly discover in their mid-thirties that they have been so busy making their way in their careers and lives, that they have no romantic friendships, no one who they wish to settle down and start a family with.  We might slowly or suddenly realize that we have not quite got the right balance between the different aspects of our life.  And it might be that it is only when we stop for this one day of reflection and review in the busy year on Yom Kippur that we start to wonder if we should be making some changes ourselves.

I am one of those who tend to fill every moment, and I know I got it from my parents – we could never go off on holiday without stopping to post letters on the way!  This leads to some days when I know I’ve been on a roll, and feel like I’ve got a great deal done.  The downside is when it seems like I’ve achieved nothing all day!  Quite often, back in Britain, we’d go for family holidays on a canal boat.  I was very aware that it took me the first couple of days to slow down from the rush of normal life, typified by the 70 mile per hour motorway journey to get there, to the four mile per hour maximum speed limit on the canal!  The point was made most dramatically at Watford Gap, on the way to Birmingham, where six lanes of the M1 motorway, with traffic going at least 70 miles per hour, squeezed through the gap in the Chiltern hills alongside the main railway from London to the north, with trains screaming past at 125 miles per hour.  And next to them is the Grand Union Canal, with the boats meandering along at 3 to 4 miles per hour!  It is a slow, and memorable image, but not a quiet one, though it would be hard to find a better illustration of life in the fast lane, and the contrast of what is today becoming known as the slow movement.  And this is one of the many subjects that Rabbi Neuberger talks about.  Slow is good – sometimes – but it is quite impractical for the whole of society to permanently shift down to it.

Now we don’t have 2 days to spare – and I am not suggesting that we start marking two days Yom Kippur!  On the other hand, we shouldn’t have started the process today – ten days ago we celebrated Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the intensive days of reflection – and our tradition encourages us to have spent the whole month of Elul before that in preparation as well.  So let’s see what we can do with what we’ve got left!  As our lives get fuller and fuller, it is all the more amazing that each year more of us decide to stay in shul all day on Yom Kippur, seeking to reach to deeper levels of our selves, to search and review and understand who we are and where we are going.  Thank you for being here, and, for those who stay after this service, for doing that.  I am sure it will be beneficial to you – and I also know that your presence helps and supports others who are also seeking to slow down, to feel their way to what truly matters – to tune in to the still small voice inside, which is so rarely heard.

So many of us are too busy, and doing too much, and often not enough of the right things, like spending quality time with family and friends.  We need to find ways to slow down, to take time out, to do less, to be more selective.  Perhaps we need to choose better-perhaps we need to make more of a weekly Shabbat?

If you wonder where I am going with all this talk of time and balance, it is to the subject that Julie raised on Rosh Hashanah and Tom talked about last night.  It is time for the Chai challenge.  A religious congregation is a remarkable institution – again, I suggest, a Jewish invention – remember, it was developed during the Babylonian exile that I talked about last night!  And I suggest that an objective view of Leo Baeck would be that it is even more remarkable than most.  Our members and past presidents are to be found leading regional Jewish and Zionist organizations – Philip Bliss, who we share with TBI, is on the Governing Body of the Worldwide Progressive movement.  Our immediate past President Henry Okraglik has joined the regional UPJ.  Locally, Progressive Judaism Victoria, which I talked about on Rosh Hashanah and whose new name and structure was worked out on our white board in our Kiddush hall, has started to review and restructure its Introduction to Judaism course under Julie Contole’s guidance; work that has now been taken on by Jim Beck.  Our members Alan Jacobs and Shmuely Slater have run the Ballarat services this High holydays under the umbrella of PJV outreach, led by Linda Stern and Tanya Warms, and Tanya has also been leading the new Geelong Chavurah.  And Bet Olam, our Progressive Funeral Service, is getting more and more professional and efficient, and significantly busier under another past president, Paddy Keith.

It is also worth pointing out that these are all people you’ll still see regularly participating at services and LBC events.  And they are all busy people, with work, family and other responsibilities.  I hope they won’t mind me saying that they are people like you, not superheroes.  I don’t think they all feel that they have a huge amount of Jewish knowledge – but they certainly have commitment.  And if I can get in a plug for my book, A Judaism for the twenty-first century, available from the office, I would suggest that that is a fairly digestible and interesting read, and will equip you with a general all round understanding of Judaism, and where Progressive Judaism is distinctive.  And a variety of other study opportunities are also available - indeed we have had an LBC congregant on the excellent Beutel leadership seminar in Jerusalem every year for the last three, and another planning to go this January, and they always come back fired up and equipped with ideas, contacts, enthusiasm and enhanced understanding.

And yet, as you have heard, we urgently need new blood.  Perhaps we are punching above our weight in the wider community and movement.  It’s good that we can do that.  It’s great that there are opportunities to have more influence.  But people who have been running our community for many years are getting older and tired.  Both our co-Presidents, Tom and Julie, have done full stints as  Presidents and then past Presidents before, and are therefore acutely aware that we always need new blood, new people to get involved at LBC, and to bring in their own circles, family, friends, and of course new ideas and approaches.

And so we have launched the Chai challenge.  This is a challenge for you.  Will you be one of the eighteen new people, quite possibly already busy people, who will choose to rebalance their priorities, to help LBC and our ancient modern religion to thrive, and to stay relevant for your time and your children?  Are you recently retired or coming up to retirement, with plenty of mileage left in you, full of experience, knowing that a change is as good as a rest?  Perhaps you always had it in the back of your mind to do more in the community when you had the time.

As Julie said, we won’t throw you in at the deep end and leave you on your own.  We are arranging a mentoring or buddy system with an experienced board member and will help you find the area and tasks, bigger or smaller, that best suit you.  Pirkei avot has a special message for our campaign - Lo Alecha hamlacha ligmor – v’lo atah ben chortin l’hibateil mimena – it is not for us to complete the work, but neither may we desist from it!

Here is our version of the church steeple appeal – it is the word Chai, divided into18 sections.  And the great news is that I reckon we’ve already got 5 new people signed up, so we’re already over a quarter of the way there.

We can’t guarantee you greater happiness, more fulfillment, deep satisfaction, or a new set of friends, though experience suggests that all are likely.  And even if this is not the year for you, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to review your priorities and your relationship with God.  Whether or not you become one of the 18 new life Chai members, I can tell you that Slow has always been a key part of our tradition – that a quiet, reflective period is available – indeed, mandated - each week – not only the 25 hours from the lighting of the candles on Friday evening through to Havdalah on Saturday nightfall, but especially the couple of hours from ten to twelve each Shabbat morning at our services.  May it be a year of peace, happiness, health, friendship, family, community for you all.



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