A narrative inspired by storyteller Bobby Stoddard…
My favorite winter in Vermont will always be 1999. A big snow year comes while I am a part-time carpenter and a full-time ski bum. I used to hike up an abandoned ski mountain to get fresh tracks — where nobody has skied down in front of me sullying the mountain.
It is sublime whiteness.
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776
So, I am up there one Saturday, just my dogs for company. Alone, I ski the mountain and I get my turns in, and between the bottom of the chair lift and the parking lot there is a little gully. Wanting to maximize my vertical, I drop down into this gully and spin around so I’m facing up the mountain, just to see how far back my dogs are. When I look up, I see something, it’s a mother, a father and a little baby boy. They’re about a hundred yards up the mountain, playing with sleds. I watch the father taking his little 18 month old boy, setting him on a little red plastic sled, face first, and sliding him, just about 7 feet toward the mother. She bends down… and I still don’t know how this happens, but she misses catching him…. He slips right through her legs. In an instant, this kid is rocketing down the mountain. Immediately, the dad jumps into his sled and takes off after the baby. But he’s never gonna catch him. This is a ski mountain, not a backyard hill.
The kid’s flying down the mountain. I start running as soon as I see him take off. I’m running in the direction the baby’s headed, but as soon as I take my first step, I can no longer see him. I’m down in this gully, blind. I can just barely see them over the lip of snow. As I’m charging through, this gully is getting deeper and deeper. It’s becoming a ravine.
I run to where I hope this kid is headed, but I haven’t seen him for a few seconds. I know he’s still coming because I can hear his mother shrieking, a primal scream, “Parker jump out, Parker, Parker.”
I look up and can see a steel pipe sticking out of the ground, a snow making pylon. I’m gawking at this pipe, waiting, listening to his mother.
Then, all of a sudden, he is there. This little kid. Parker, clinging frozen to the front of the sled, his little face terrified….
He shoots off the cornice of snow. He misses that pipe by one inch. His sled goes flying. He flips in the air; and I just catch him. Right out of the air. Now I’ve got him. He’s in my arms. I’m looking down at him, little Parker. And I say, “Hey, that looked fun, Parker. How you doing?” He’s all owl eyes at me. The Dad skids to a stop, agog. The parents never saw me. They didn’t notice me snowboard down, starting to run. Dad could only see his little guy. The Dad stares at me dumb. “Who are you?” Looking up, I say, “I’m Bobby.” He can’t stop asking, “Where did you come from?” “I was just here.”
Then the mother arrives. She stumbles into the snow toward me, and I carefully hand her Parker. Clearly, this woman wants her baby. Taking the child, she just … crumples, weeping, crescendos of wailing. Now Parker’s bawling because she is. And I’m thinking, why isn’t she soothing him? He was fine. I gave her a perfectly good baby, and now he’s crying, too! The dad talks to me urgently. “Bobby, do you read the Bible?” I reply, “No. No.” He declares, “Well I read the Bible. I don’t believe God does anything without purpose. I believe God put you here today to save our son.”
I’m not a big God guy, but I wonder. When someone insists something like that to you, you take stock. I start replaying the magnitude of the event. I take in that steel pipe threatening inconspicuously from the ground, and I picture Parker’s little face streaking by it. The whole world slows. My senses amplify. Electrified smell, taste, and hearing bellow. The Dad and I are talking, but I’m listening to oxygen enter his lungs and come out of his lungs. I can sense saliva course through my glands. I reach to shake his hand, his fingerprints on my fingerprints.
Then, I get in my car and drive. Slowly raindrops explode off my windshield. I smell cigarettes in houses that are shut and a hundred yards away. “Yeheah!!! Yes, this feels right. This is what it feels like when you discover your calling.” I found what I do! I catch babies! I know, this is right. I’m a superhero.
The second I heard this story, I knew I would share it with you this Erev Rosh Hashana. It highlights the moments I love most in life; all purposes coalesce, everything clicks. Your neshama, your soul, your heart, and your body do exactly what they are created to do.
And so, I set out to write a sermon about how to multiply these moments in our lives. However, I had to begrudgingly admit, flying down mountains and catching babies mid-air in the wilderness rarely happens. As much as I want to actualize these highs 99% of our time happens staying on top of home life and parenting; struggling with loneliness or sickness; being our best partner, son or daughter; and working hard. Finally, I realized that how we approach the everyday, the mundane, was the sermon I needed to write for me and for us. How can we create opportunities for Divine, Transcendent connection while we journey through the everyday? What can it mean to invite spiritual happiness into our lives? How do we make room for moments of profound clarity and wholeness? How do we build those moments while grocery shopping?
Some people seem to be happy all the time. They are perennially enthusiastic. They hardly appear weighed down by life’s challenges. I am not one of these people. 😊 I worry. Sometimes I obsess a bit.Guilt and doubt creep into my thinking more than I’d like. Many of us suffer with these tendencies.
However, Judaism recognizes this impulse and offers us a path to establish more spiritual equanimity, happiness, peace, and balance in our lives, even when the unhappy paths we find ourselves stuck on are downright soul-wounding.
Jewish mystics contend holiness wears ordinary clothing. We just need to be perceptive to notice what’s special in the familiar, to be grateful for the good in our everyday. Like muscles we must use to strengthen, nurturing our soul can be constant. Jewish tradition provides concrete steps. We can work to say 100 blessings each day. It’s quite difficult to find one hundred things each day to bless. So difficult, in fact, that we spend most of our time looking for the blessable. That’s the goal. The more we search for happiness, the more available it becomes to us. Also, we may find many beautiful experiences that would otherwise have evaded us.
Rabbi Daniel I. Schwartz writes: happiness becomes not a final state to be achieved, but a process,a way of life and of living in a spiritual way. This process of searching for opportunities to bless teaches us that it is impossible to be happy all the time. We may never encounter opportunities for a 100 blessings, but there’s still plenty to bring happiness. Many things will bring joy, despite our struggles or misfortunes.
There is a wonderful story about a dismayed man, discouraged because he was only happy half the time. He went to his rabbi in tears, moaning that he was a failure. The rabbi stroked his beard. (Rabbis in these types of stories all seem to have beards). Nodding his head wisely, the rabbi suggested cryptically that the man refer to a specific page of the current World Almanac of Facts. Surprised, the fellow dutifully followed the rabbi’s instruction, but came back confused.
“I don’t understand,” said the troubled man, showing the rabbi the book. “All I can find on that page is a list of baseball batting statistics.” The rabbi pointed at a line on the page. The man read it aloud: “Highest lifetime batting averages.” “And who is at the top of that list?” the rabbi queried. The man answered, “Ty Cobb, with a lifetime average of 367.” The rabbi looked deeply into the man’s disconsolate eyes and said, “So?” The man appeared disturbed. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Listen my friend,” the rabbi answered. “Ty Cobb only got a base hit once every 3 times, but still he was the best. He made the Hall of Fame.” The man, in despair, twisted his hands together anxiously. “I’m not a baseball fan,” he said. “I don’t understand.” The rabbi rose from behind his desk, frustrated. “If one out of three got Ty Cobb into the Hall of Fame, then you are a superstar. You told me you were happy one of every two days,” the rabbi quoted. “You’re batting 500. With a little practice, who knows what heights of happiness you can reach?”
I challenge each of us to work toward recognizing 100 blessings in our lives each day. Focusing on gratitude is a foundation of spiritual happiness. No one is born with everything and no one is lucky all the time. No matter how much or how little we are blessed, concentrating on what is wrong will never make us whole. Before we can experience happiness, we have to perceive the positive aspect of every situation. This practice refines our capacity to connect to the Divine in all things. It enables us to transform each moment, offering a sense of blessing, intimacy, love, and joy in difficult or just the most mundane living.
Rebbe Levi Yitzhak, a Hasidic leader from Berdychiv, Ukraine, who lived in the late 1700’s, charged everyone with the obligation and the capacity to recognize divinity in all things, in every situation, everywhere. No separation exists between God and the world, or between the spiritual and the material, between, you and me. We are all part of Divinity, as God’s unity is absolute and infinite. The Creator desires our connection and waits to be discovered and met. Deepening our awareness of God’s presence everywhere, each moment, delights us. We encounter the Divine over and over. The Transcendent is more present in our world. We both testify to and make real God’s oneness, the interconnectedness of all existence.
Rabbi Jonathan Slater, a deeply respected mentor of mine asks, “Can these teachings change how I understand myself in the world? Can I find instruction for a life that will help me to be happier, more compassionate, more righteous, and more attuned to my responsibilities to all beings?
Spiritual happiness is a practice, not a state of mind or a feeling. Recognize holiness wrapped in the everyday and bless it. Understanding blessing, choosing to see the good, draws us to the Divine and manifests the Transcendent even in the difficult, the mundane, the glorious, and everything in between.
One of my favorite berakhot, blessings, begins, Modah ani lifanekha ruach chai v’kayam shehecḥezarta bi nishmahti … I am grateful before You, living and enduring Spirit, for returning my soul to me in compassion…
This is the first blessing we recite each morning during prayer. It simply thanks the Eternal for the gift of waking up and for the Divine essence we each possess. I feel this blessing most strongly after hard times when I feel hope again. When I am disconnected from my neshama and then discover a way to reaffirm it, this blessing grows inside me. Simple gratitude for the promise of a new day brings this bracha into my heart anew.
In our exploration of sanctifying the everyday, we return to Bobby’s story. His thrilling superhero revelation ties us all to the practice of blessing and reaching for the Divine in each moment.
Yes… Bobby loses his superhero powers a day or two later as we might expect. A year or two later we learn he meets his wife and has his first child, a daughter, Hazel. Bobby shares looking down at little Hazel and realizes what the Vermont ski-day baby-catching-superhero-moment taught him. He recalls the mother clinging to her child on the side of that snowy mountain. When he looks down at Hazel, still so vulnerable, Bobby recognizes the overwhelming, primal love he feels for his daughter. He affirms,, “Now I know my purpose. Now I know what’s right for me.” Bobby does not want to reclaim being a super hero anymore. He does not seek the rush of careening down a snow white mountain,or catching stranger’s babies, but recognizes the wonder of his child. Bobby blesses their moment. He sanctifies their simple happiness.
Modah ani lifanekha ruach chai v’kayam shehecḥezarta bi nishmahti … I am grateful before You, living and enduring Spirit, for returning my soul to me in compassion… May we each discover all opportunities for spiritual happiness, for blessing precious, earthly moments and creating spaces for Divine light to shine amidst the mundane. May the New Year be filled with blessings, at least 100 of them, everyday, for each of us.