Rabbi Cheryl Jacobs’ Kol Nidrei Sermon
Now is the time for turning.
The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange.
The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the south.
The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.
For leaves, birds, and animals, turning comes instinctively.
But for us, turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn.
It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy. It means losing face; it means starting over again; and this is always painful. It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change.
These things are terribly hard to do.
But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.
Turn us around, Oh God, and bring us back toward You.
Revive our lives, as at the beginning.
And turn us toward each other, God,
For in isolation there is no life. (Jack Riemer, machzor, page 1237)
I don’t have a lot of friends. Don’t get me wrong…I have amazing friends, but not a lot of them. I often look at Facebook and I see huge groups of friends – 8, 10 whatever. They go to dinner, and they paint pottery and they really seem to like each other …and it never fails to fascinate me. They go out every weekend, or once a month, to do something as simple as play mahjong . And at least once a year, they travel together. They go to a cabin somewhere, or to Bimini, or they follow Dave Matthews around the country – but there’s always a big group and they’re always together.
In my entire life, I’ve only been on one “girls trip.” It was back when Andrew and I were dating – 22 years ago. My two childhood best friends and I went to Newport, Rhode Island for a weekend. I guess that constitutes a girls trip – but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations nullifies it’s existence after 20 years. The truth is, I’m fairly confident that the fact that I don’t have a lot of friends is my fault. There is no doubt that this life and the role of clergy can be very isolating. But unlike my friend, the Cantor, I’m also very shy, introverted, and like us all, completely dedicated to my husband, my kids, my police officers and my job.
The fact is, it’s hard to get close to me, and I am self-intuitive enough to know where it all began.
At 17 years old, facing the sudden death of my father, the only way I could deal with that pain was to retreat, insulate and isolate. I rationalized that I was just one of millions in the world experiencing hurt, and there was no reason why I should burden others with my pain and sadness. This many years later, my modus operandi hasn’t changed. If anything those teen habits have become second nature. Those closest to me- my husband, kids, sister and closest friends – know that I occasionally disappear. I retreat into my cocoon, sometimes for weeks, while I deal with whatever I’m going through and then emerge a temporarily rehabilitated butterfly. But they know I will emerge, the same way that I know that they are sad and angry that I don’t trust them to climb into my cocoon with me. And I do trust them…it’s just that I learned at a very young age that I had to fight my own battles. Even now, there are times when I still go to war with myself.
I read a report recently that said that 25% of Americans have no meaningful social support at all. They have no one to talk to, no one to laugh with, no one to simply be there for them. The article spoke about the damage that isolation can do to your body and soul, and I thought – that’s not me. I have meaningful and amazing support. I have people, family a community I love! But as I kept reading, I realized that this article was talking about me. Because the article did not distinguish between societal isolation or self-imposed isolation… because, really, does it matter? Either way, if you’re always standing outside of a crowd, the same feelings of loneliness, awkwardness and loss are felt.
After reading that report, I struggled quite a bit. One morning while at the gym, my friend and self-help guru mentioned the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
The longest running study on adult life, the Harvard study has been going since 1938. The project has followed 724 men since they were teenagers – year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health – following their life stories all along the way for 81 years. Today, less than twenty of those original men are still alive – living well into their 90’s – but the work continues, with researchers now studying more than 2000 children of these pioneering men.
Back in 1938, those researchers gathered two groups. The first was comprised of men who, at the time, were sophomores at Harvard College. They all graduated during World War 2 and most of them went off to serve in the great war. The second group was comprised of boys from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods – one of neighborhoods, in fact, where my grandfather lived. These boys were chosen specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in Boston. They lived in tenements, many without basic comforts such as hot or cold running water.
Upon entering the study, all the young men from both groups were interviewed and given thorough medical exams. Researchers also went to their homes and questioned their parents. As time passed, the teens grew into adults who entered all walks of life. They became sanitary workers, lawyers, doctors, factory workers, bricklayers, CEO’s and even the President of the United States. Some climbed the ladder from the bottom to the top …and some made the perilous journey in the other direction.
And every year since 1938, the Harvard team has followed up with the men – asking them new and in-depth questions about their lives. Every year, medical records are reviewed, blood is drawn, brains are scanned, and relatives are consulted. Every year for the last 81 years.
The on-going study keeps revealing something telling: Through 81 years, through all stages of life, every man agreed that it was the relationships in their lives that kept them happy and healthier.
In a way it’s obvious, but the study continues to assert that social connections are critical and that loneliness kills.
They say that people who are more socially connected to family, community, and friends are happier, physically healthier and they live longer than people who isolate themselves from others. In other words, loneliness is toxic.
Not only are those who find themselves alone less happy, their health declines as they age and their brain function declines and they live shorter lives than those with social connections. And by social connectiveness and relationships, I’m not speaking about only a spouse or significant other – this study claims that it’s not how many friends you have and it’s not whether you’re in a romantic relationship that matters – it is the quality of your relationships that matters. Living in the midst of constant conflict is bad for our health, while living in the midst of a good, warm friendship, community or relationship is healing.
Aside from the sheer longevity of this study, what is also revolutionary and unique about it is that once researchers had followed the original men into their 80s, they wanted to look back at the midlives of the men and see if they could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy 80 year old and who would not. And when researchers gathered together everything they knew about each man at age 50, it wasn’t their cholesterol levels that predicted how long they were to live. And it wasn’t the money they were making at the jobs they went to each day.
Researchers found that men who were in a safe relationship-one in which they felt they could rely on another person – retained their cognitive abilities, staying sharper longer. Further, researchers found that the people who felt most satisfied in their relationships – meaning partnerships, friendships and community – those men were the healthiest at age 80.
The conclusion of the 81 year study: Emotional pain, loneliness and isolation had a direct effect on their physical longevity and ultimately, their lifespan.
This message is nothing new – Proverbs tells us that Judaism is not just a religion but a relationship. Our sages knew thousands of years ago that a good life takes hard work – not in the office – but in the heart and mind. Relationships can be messy and complicated and hard work. But over and over in this study, the men who fared the best mentally and physically were those who leaned into relationships with family, friends and community.
So what this study tells me is that the quality of our relationships is the key to living a longer, happier life. The lives of 724 men tell me that it’s not about money or status, whether you ever go on a girls’ trip or socialize en masse in ubertrendy ways, despite whatever superficial illusions we see on social media.
It’s about whether or not you have at least one person in your life that would lay down in traffic for you. And the study is also very clear that it’s not just about spending your life going out and finding that one person. It’s about cultivating relationships with others too – and putting in the work to maintain them, so they thrive across our own personal 81 years and counting happiness outcomes.
Relationships are the backbone of humanity. Sure, they have evolved and changed over the years. But the essence of why we turn to each other is still there. We build relationships for safety, security, love, acceptance, tribe, and community. Sure, there are ups and downs in any relationship. But the knowledge that you can always turn to someone when you need he or she, and to a community when you need them infuses a sense of belonging and purpose and gratitude and love that you can’t ever get from work, money or Instagram. If we all just spent the same energy pulling people in as opposed to pushing people away… if we all just took a moment to consider the lasting impacts of sticking around and supporting one another through the rough times. Imagine what our world could be.
Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. They lived together, east of Eden, tilling the earth, raising children, and struggling to stay alive. After the many years of struggle, when their children were grown, Adam and Eve decided, before it was too late, to take a journey and see the world that God had created. They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other and explored all of its wonders.
In the course of their journeys, they came to a place that seemed so familiar. It was the entrance to the Garden of Eden. The garden was now guarded by an angel with a flaming sword and it frightened Adam and Eve, who began to flee.
Suddenly, there was a voice, a gentle, imploring voice. God spoke to them: “My children, you have lived in exile these many, many years. Your punishment is complete. Come now and return to My garden. Come home to the garden.”
Suddenly the angel disappeared, and the way to the Garden opened “Wait,” Adam replied, “it has been so many years. Remind me, what is it like in the garden?”
“The garden is paradise!” God responded. “In the garden there is no work. You never need to struggle or toil again. In the garden there is no pain, no suffering. In the garden there is no death. In the garden, there is no time – no yesterday, no tomorrow, only an endless today. Come My children, return to the garden!”
Adam considered God’s words – no work, no struggle, no pain, no death. And no passage of time. An endless life of ease, with no tomorrow and no yesterday. And then he turned and looked at Eve. He looked into the face of the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home.
And Eve looked back into the face of Adam. She saw all the moments that formed their lives — moments of jubilant celebration and moments of unbearable pain. She remembered the moments when new life arrived in their world, and the moments when death intruded. She took Adam’s hand in hers.
Looking into one another’s eyes, Adam shook his head, and responded to God’s invitation, “No thank you, that’s not for us, not now. We don’t need that now. Come on Eve, let’s go home.” And Adam and Eve turned their backs on God’s Paradise and walked home.1
The lesson has been right there in our Midrash. Adam and Eve knew paradise was about more than perfection. Paradise was about their partnership, their children and the generations to come. There’s a fortune from a cookie on our refrigerator that says, “Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid of standing still.” This year, may we follow the example of Adam and Eve, to draw near and to live with an open heart, open mind and open arms – because that would truly be paradise.