Leaving Your Comfort Zone
Leaving Your Comfort Zone
Erev Rosh HaShana Sermon, 5768
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
In past years, on this auspicious evening,
as we step into the New Year, I have
frequently spoken about the sense of home:
all of us from far-flung places, honing in as
if by instinct, coming to this holy place at
this holy time. We’ve talked about the
yearning for home and the challenges of
realizing that home means something different
for each one of us.
This evening I want to talk about an idea
that is about as opposite from home as one
could possibly get. Instead of talking about
comfort zones, I want to delve into our
tradition’s wily commitment to jerking us out
of our comfort zones.
Think of Abraham and Sarah, happily
living in their polytheistic homeland in
Mesopotamia when they get the call “Lech
lecha,” “Lechi lach.” Go on a journey to find
yourself. And they set forth on this
adventure, leaving behind everything they
know in a quest for their future.
Think of Moses, happily herding his sheep
in the desert of Midian when he gets the call
to lead the campaign to free the slaves.
Not just our biblical ancestors but our
personal ancestors often took amazing leaps
of faith that helped us reach this day. My
grandmother, Bertha Greenberg, was 15 years
old when she, alone, left her village in
Bukavina, in eastern Europe, to travel to the
big city to get on a boat to cross the ocean.
Her brave actions planted our generations
here in this country.
The whole Torah and much of Jewish history
is one big tale of journeying. In the Torah,
there isn’t even a conclusion to the story.
The big story in the Torah, as you know, is
“We were slaves in Egypt, we wandered in the
wilderness, we got to the edge of Israel”.
And that’s the end of the story. The Torah
ends. Can you imagine a movie that is framed
like that? What kind of a movie director
would end the story right there? Rabbi Avram
Davis teaches that through this framing,
Torah emphasizes that the journey towards
freedom is what matters, not the destination.
The Promised Land is not a place, but a process.
In the journey of life, all of us get
stuck in ruts at times. There are the grand
ruts that come along with the particular
scripts handed down from generation to
There are the small ruts of habit.
Someone recently described these ruts to
me like this: it’s as though you load up a
wheelbarrow and push it on a certain path
toward the forest. The next day when you do
it again, it’s easier to take the same path
the wheelbarrow already went on. Every day
that wheelbarrow track gets deeper and it
becomes harder and harder to move away from
that well worn rut even if you want to go
The New Year is a huge invitation to leave
these comfortable ruts, to be more aware,
more free, to be more of who you can be, to
make this world more of what it could be.
The New Year is a wonderful invitation to
make choices about what scripts from the past
are life affirming. What patterns in your
life are effective and actualize your vision?
What needs to change?
Torah proclaims,“I put before you this day
the blessing and the curse; therefore choose
Following in the tradition of our
ancestors, what would it be like to shake it
up a little, try something new, try a new
attitude, a new behavior? Could we each leave
our homeland whether it be Mesopotamia or
Egypt or Center City Philadelphia, the Main
Line or South Jersey? These Holy Days provide
tremendous collective support for the inner
work each of us is called to do to grow
ourselves. We’re here together providing a
spiritual container, otherwise known as
community, to make it possible for moral
development to happen.
These days are about change. They are
about not just having to do and be the same
old, same old, but with the power of prayer
and the strength of community, taking a step
into a New Year with greater clarity and
greater consciousness to fuel the good deeds
we hope to do in the year to come.
In the Torah that we learn on these days,
there are stories that teach us to take the
power to choose our perspective on life.
In one story, Hagar and her baby Ishmael
are about to die in the desert wilderness
from desperate thirst. There seems to be no
hope at all. All of a sudden she lifts her
eyes, the text says, and lo and behold there
is water. She had to change her perspective
by lifting her eyes, our sages teach, before
the water could save her life.
In another case, Abraham is on the verge
of sacrificing his son Isaac. There is Isaac
bundled on the altar about to be slaughtered.
There seems no way out of this debacle. Then
Abraham looks up and lo and behold there is a
ram in the bushes. He had to change his
perspective by looking up before that ram
could save his son. We get to choose our
perspective even when that means leaving the
comfort zone of habitual mindset.
Maybe you’d like to choose a new
perspective on some of the questions that
often arise when we all come together for a
service such as this. Naturally questions
arise such as will I feel comfortable in this
service? Are these my kind of people? Do I
belong here? What a liberating idea, that
each one of us can choose our own vantage
point. Of course you belong, of course you
are welcome, of course there is something for
Today, I am taking stock of where the
Jewish people are on our collective journey
and I am particularly going to look at where
we are stuck. I see some stuck places where
old pain is keeping people from moving freely
forward. It’s like we are camping out with
the wagons circled, protecting entrenched
positions, well defended but unable to move
forward on the journey. I’m going to name
some of those stuck places.
A big stuck place that is really hampering
our journey has to do with past
disappointments and hurts the Jewish people
The Holocaust of course was a huge,
devastating wound for us. The six million
included a generation of teachers who could
have enriched Jewish life for years to come.
As the Rabbis said, when you save a life, you
save a whole world and we lost many many
worlds. Our people has not recovered from
this terrible trauma.
On a different scale, but still
significant, there are also more recent
Jewish wounds that many of us carry with us.
People pour their hearts out to me as a
Rabbi, at social events and in counseling
sessions. It’s amazing how many stories I
hear about what didn’t work for individuals
in their past relationships with Jewish
community. Sometimes Hebrew school is the
sore spot. Hebrew school failed many
people---- “I never understood a word of
Hebrew and so it’s all meaningless to me.”
Sometimes insensitive clergy people fail
those who seek them out, especially in
interfaith situations. For instance a Rabbi
refuses to participate in the sanctification
of love between a Jew and a non-Jew and
judges or dismisses a couple’s relationship.
This has caused terrible hurt feelings and
pain about Jewish community life.
Another example of past hurts, that is
extremely prevalent, is how painful the
finances of Jewish community life have been
to many people. It has shamed and enraged
people to have to pay for their religion.
Again and again I hear powerful negative
reaction from people who have been asked to
buy tickets for prayer services, or to pay to
belong to a synagogue.
Each of these areas---the Holocaust, the
question of Jewish education, of interfaith
relationships and of how to sustain a
synagogue without offending people----are
very complex. At this moment I am only
looking at how painful these issues have been
for many Jews today. We are a wounded
community. We are literally survivors of
trauma. Our ability to move forward is
Specialists who study trauma have
identified pathways to recovery that would be
very relevant to Jewish experience. Judith
Hermann, a respected leader in the world of
trauma recovery, posits three stages of
healing: establishing safe space, remembering
the trauma, moving on into new relationships
and commitments. As a spiritual community we
have many resources for establishing safe
space. Our liturgy is a liturgy of
remembrance; and most exciting of all Jewish
community offers new opportunities for
learning, relationship, fun and caring.
But none of this communal resource will
do any good unless each one of us does the
holy inner work of renewal. This is the time
of year to open the heart, to let God’s
grace, God’s healing chesed gently in. This
is the time to let some of that old pain
melt. Jewish baggage is unavoidable, but you
don’t have to carry quite as much of it into
the New Year.
I’ll share with you a very powerful image.
Midrash asks, where will we find Messiah when
the time comes? Where will mashiach be? And
the answer is, mashiach will be sitting
outside the gates of Jerusalem bandaging
his/her wounds. From the wounded comes hope
and renewal. Mashiach is hurt and yet brings
forth a time of redemption, justice, peace.
This is such a rich image of transformation.
If any one of you experiences yourself as
holding back, staying on the margins of
Jewish community life, because of old hurts,
I want you to know two things: I want you to
know that there are people inside,
power-houses of Jewish continuity, who are
lonely for you, who need you. And number two,
there are young people and people new to
Judaism coming into the Jewish world who need
the strength of our people, standing together
in all of our diversity, to welcome them.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in Dignity of
Difference (quoted in the article by Rabbi
Sheila Weinberg, “Spiritual Direction: No
Inside, No Outside” that we are reading in
community this week),
How can I let go of that pain when it
is written into my very soul? And yet I must.
For the sake of my children and theirs, not
yet born. I cannot build their future on the
hatreds of the past, nor can I teach them to
love God more by loving people less…. The
duty I owe my ancestors who died because of
their faith is to build a world in which
people no longer die because of their faith.
I honour the past not by repeating it but by
learning from it…by refusing to add pain to
pain, grief to grief. That is why we must
answer hatred with love, violence with peace,
resentment with generosity of spirit and
conflict with reconciliation.
I picture a New Year, in which all of us
who harbor old Jewish pain, are able to let
that melt a bit in the light of new
possibilities. It’s a time for second
chances, a time for healing. To stay in the
disappointments and failures of past Jewish
experience is like taking that wheelbarrow
down the same path again and again. It’s
staying in a comfort zone of familiar pain
that isn’t really very comforting. The call
of the shofar is to leave that well worn
place, to discover bravely, together in
community, a new way.
This new way will have deeply personal
ramifications and also vast political
In the realm of the personal, it is a
blessing to clean up the misery that holds
you back from joy and right action.
In the realm of the political, look at
the impasse we are in in the middle east.
There is a place of such stuckness for Jews:
a place where we are so hurt and so fearful
that we can’t listen to other voices, we
can’t do creative problem-solving, we become
part of the problem rather than the solution.
We need to clean up our collective pain in
order to step into our future.
In the spirit of Abraham and Sarah, of
Moses, of Bertha Greenberg, my grandmother
and all the other brave ancestors of each one
here, let’s let go of the debilitating stuck
places, let’s let God in, and let’s choose a
future of involvement, respect, co-operation,
sharing, and peace. Living in the painful
memories of the past damages our prospects
for a future. Memory is important but let’s
also remember that we are a people called to
pursue justice, called to create peace,
called to live in holy community.
Let’s accept the invitation to choose life.
Welcome to Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City!
We look forward to journeying with you into
the New Year. May it be a year of
consciousness and commitment. May it be a
year of fun and happiness. May it be a year
of abundance, friendship and good deeds.