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  September 30, 2008

I was sifting through newspapers that had piled up in our kitchen when I came across an incredible little article. It was early July and the author was offering tips on exercise. Her article had to do with a problem she had encountered as she planned her family's summer vacation. It turned out that she and her husband, with their two small children, had booked themselves on a trip that put them all in one hotel room which happened to be in a hotel that had no athletic facilities.

Dilemma: How was the author going to maintain her exercise regimen which demanded stretches, strength training, and cardio?

Her solution: She purchased a portable DVD player, bought new exercise equipment, and - here's my favorite part of the article - she got up every day of the five day vacation at 5 a.m. while the family was still sleeping, put on earphones, and exercised in the bathroom of her hotel room.

I understand. Exercise is important. Regular exercise becomes a kind of sacred moment in many people's lives, and it should.

But something about the article wasn't quite right. Maybe it was the vision of the author stuffed into that bathroom panting and sweating. Maybe it was the image of earphones at 5 in the morning. Maybe it was the fact that the author couldn't imagine a respite from her regimen.

The way she wrote about it her exercise didn't sound like part of a healthy lifestyle. It felt as if her exercise was her life. The tail wagging the dog. Almost an obsession that not a day go by without work, work, working at making her body perfect.

In 2008, a lot of what we do tries to make our corner of the world perfect.

Everybody exercises. 40 year olds try to maintain the bodies of 30 year olds, and 60 year olds try to maintain the bodies of 50 year olds. We are vigilant about what we eat. We don't smoke. We hardly drink any more - except for red wine because science tells us that red wine in moderation is actually good for our health.

When it comes to children, we are also wiser - or perhaps more driven - than previous generations. Helmets for every child who rides a bike. Pads of various sorts for every child who skateboards. Car seats of different sizes for children of every age.

Be on the watch for predators. Be on the watch for allergies. And be sure to participate in every sport or cultural option in order to enter that perfect college.

In 2008, we adults want to be forever young even as we desperately try to guarantee our children a future that is altogether safe and bright.

Let me paraphrase the writer, Leon Wieseltier. Recently, he used these words to describe our approach to life - Once upon a time, people went for walks for no other reason than to go for a walk. That was before the panic set in. That was before our society attempted to expel contingency from American life. (The New Republic, August 27, 2008)

Yes, that was before we tried to protect ourselves and our kids inside perfect cocoons. We who have grown up after World War Two as the children or grandchildren of those who knew the Great Depression and the reality of war on a massive scale have been blessed. Baby boomers and those younger have grown up in a world of rising expectations. Perhaps because we have been so largely blessed with stability unlike anything in history, we have forgotten. We've forgotten "contingency." Or we have assumed we could beat it.

Listen to Ann Beattie, who wrote as follows in a novel called Picturing Will: "Do everything right all the time, and the child (and we hope the adult as well) will prosper.

"It's as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance, the astrological sign under which the child was born, his order of birth, his first encounter with evil, the girl who jilts him in spite of his excellent qualities, the war that is being fought when he is a young man, the drugs he may try once or too many times, the friends he makes, how he scores on tests, how well he endures kidding about his shortcomings, how ambitious he becomes, how far he falls behind...danger when it is least expected...people with hidden agendas and animals with rabies."

In other words, we can't plan for everything. We can't exercise or exorcise away all danger. We can't build dykes high enough to eliminate "contingency" or guarantee perfect lives.

Ask those who endured Hurricane Katrina - not the poor who may still seem so different from us but the people who lived in suburbs like Wilbraham, Longmeadow, and Suffield. Ask those who led cultivated protected lives and treasured their heirlooms and albums like us. The levees weren't high enough.

The same holds true for the people of coastal Texas, for those who worked at Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, or Merrill Lynch, and for those who are with us right now in the sanctuary whose marriage wasn't right or who took a job with the wrong company. You cannot plan for all eventualities. Otherwise, no one in our congregation would own the wrong stock or have a stroke, macular degeneration, or cancer.

In many ways, life is not what we bargained for when we got that diploma at college graduation and bounced off into the future.

Part of the problem is that many of us have been fooled. In one sense, it's as if we lived through Vietnam but still believe in our heart of hearts that the world should be the way it was portrayed in 1950's television. We know about Bosnia and Darfur, but something makes us feel as if we are somehow owed two weeks in the Caribbean and a sunny, secure retirement.

We are fortunate to live here in America. This "pastoral" setting, as Philip Roth calls it, is a place where dreams are kept alive and where we count on happy endings.

It's just that when our endings aren't as happy, healthy, or wealthy as we wish, we are caught short. We may not have the tools with which to greet overcast, stormy weather.

When it's not "morning in America," we are set adrift.

Or maybe not. Because those of us sitting here today do have another resource at our disposal. We encounter life as Jews, and when we do so, we can discover another way for taking life in.

Let's revisit that most disconcerting of prayers at the center of Rosh Hashanah. We call it Unetane Tokef, and we encountered it maybe ten minutes ago. Much of it was sung by the Cantor, but, if you were paying attention, you couldn't have missed these words in English that described a world where stability and protection are not guaranteed. The prayer sounds medieval (because it is), but the prayer is probably more true to life in all times and places than we might ever suppose.

Unetane tokef...

Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.

[For we do not know what the coming year holds in store for us...]

Who shall live and who shall die.

Who shall see ripe age and who shall not.

Who shall perish by fire and who by water.

Who by hunger and who by thirst.

Who shall be secure and who shall be driven.

Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled.

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich.

Who shall be humbled and who exalted...

Life is precarious - even if you exercise every day - even if you exercise all day. Life is not guaranteed, and, through the High Holidays, Judaism places that reality squarely before us. If you come to Temple on Simchat Torah, I can offer you music and dancing. If you come here on Purim, I can offer you costumes and laughter. But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are totally different because there are no distractions. We've got white robes and Torah mantles, and basically nothing else except the prayer book's reality, which is highlighted by uncertainty, a stroke of luck, and a twist of fate.

I hate to say it, but the prayer book's vision is probably a much more honest way to describe life than anything out there in America-land.

But is it depressing?

Honestly speaking, I don't think it is.

It is disappointing. It's disappointing because it would be so much more fun to live in a wonderful world. I would really love to live on a day like the Sunday before last when it was sunny but not too hot or humid, and I took a group of Seventh Graders on a tzedakah bike ride and it would have been so nice to have bicycled on a straight, level roadway forever.

But I'm not depressed because life doesn't offer that perfect biking option. I think I'm mainly satisfied and even thankful that Judaism offers me this season to acknowledge this great life reality. I'm moved because the High Holidays give me an opportunity to admit that I can't be perfect and I can't make life perfect.

Even without washboard abs, I'm stronger on this bimah because we all gather here to say out loud that life can spin out of control. The High Holidays, you might say, free us from the tyranny of perfection.

We are better off because this Jewish setting is a sacred spot where we can confess: life is fragile, life can be troublesome, life can hurt us.

Maybe the most memorable advice I ever heard came from one of my colleagues in the rabbinate by the name of Mark Shapiro. (That's his real name. He lives in Chicago. My friends there refer to him as the "other" Mark Shapiro.) I remember an article in which Mark described his family traveling in the car for a summer vacation. They were talking about people they knew and realized that every family they mentioned seemed to be dealing with one problem or another. Mark summed up the conversation by commenting in the article, "The only people I know who are happy are the ones I don't know."

It's certainly an exaggeration, but his words do point to the reality every one of us really knows. You can't skate through life. You're wasting time if you think you can outrun or outsmart the world.

I am always moved by the courage of Nachman of Bratslav, a Chasidic rabbi of the late 18th century. Nachman captured life in one sentence: "The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essence of it all is not to be afraid."

And not being afraid means simply getting up in the morning to greet the new day.

Not being afraid means savoring the first taste of coffee or orange juice.

Not being afraid means opening the window to feel the breeze on your face; listening to Mozart, Coltrane, or Sinatra; watching for the brilliance of autumn leaves and then taking a stroll as you crunch the leaves under your shoes.

If the world is a narrow bridge and the essence is not to be afraid, perhaps you need to sign a petition, speak up on a matter of conscience, or eat an especially luscious dessert tomorrow.

Given our unsettled times, I have never stopped liking the quiet appreciation for life that comes across in this dialogue from a 1954 play called The Rainmaker. One of the characters is talking to her son when she says as follows, "Some nights when I am in the kitchen washing the dishes and Pop is playing poker with the boys, I'll watch him real close, and at first I'll just see an ordinary middle-aged man, not very interesting to look at, and then minute by minute, I'll see little things I never saw in him before - good things and bad things, queer little habits I never noticed he had, and ways of talking I never paid any mind to, and suddenly I know who he is and I love him so much I could cry and I want to thank God I took the time to see him real."

To see him real.

To see life real.

I wish it was easier.

I wish it was more glamorous, more beautiful.

But that's what we've got. That's how Judaism and Jews have always seen this world.

And in spite of it all, or maybe because of our looking for real, we've said, "L'chaim - To life - To all of life as it comes to us."

And, more than that, at this season for centuries, we've also affirmed, "L'shana tova tikateivu...May you be inscribed for a good year."

Not necessarily a "happy" new year.

That would be pushing our luck.

But a "good" year? Why not?

A good year in which we walk that narrow bridge, see things real, and hold tight for the blessings we almost certainly find along the way.

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