Kirtan Rabbi Blog

Category Archives: Sermon

GTD: Getting Teshuvah Done

Introduction by Rabbi Chai Levy:
We are delighted to have Rabbi Andrew Hahn back this year to lead our musical meditation services again. Rabbi Hahn will now offer a sermon to us. [Looking at Rabbi Hahn:] Now I imagine when you appear at some places in your vast travels, people come up to you and ask you, “Are you really a Rabbi?” [Looking back at congregation:] Well, Rabbi Hahn went to Hebrew Union College in New York to become a Rabbi; and that’s a real rabbinical school. And he received his Ph.D from the Jewish Theological Seminary, also in New York; and that’s a real rabbinical school, too. I think we can safely say that Rabbi Hahn is a real Rabbi. And so, in addition, to the meditation and music he has offered us, he also has some teachings from which we can learn. So, let’s listen to the words of Torah which Rabbi Hahn will now offer.

The sermon begins here:

Thank you, Rabbi Levy. It’s so great to be back in Tiburon at Kol Shofar. I love this community, and I’m truly grateful that you chose to have me return again this year to offer musical meditation services for the High Holy Days. Thank you again.

Rabbi Levy’s introduction and my sermon were completely uncoordinated, yet it’s beschert, because her remarks provide a perfect, unplanned segue into what I want to talk to you about today. For, the truth is that, yes, when I do make the rounds, very often a person comes up to me after a concert and asks, “Are you really a Rabbi?”

This reveals so much on so many levels. First, the question shows that we live in an age, a world so commercialized, that people can well imagine that someone might actually call himself the “Kirtan Rabbi” and not actually be a Rabbi. We live in a time when for the sake of a good catch title for promotional hype, people call themselves Rabbis (or Rebs) and Cantors, when this is not the case.

Funny enough, and in the interest of full transparency, the origin of the name “Kirtan Rabbi” also says something about the age we live in. I had been doing Hebrew Kirtan for a while, and things were going pretty well, so the time had come to create a Web site. I was chewing over what it should be called. Now, I had a friend in Colorado who had dubbed herself the “Adventure Rabbi” (yes, she’s really a Rabbi); as I thought about this, it came to me: “, – I’ll be the Kirtan Rabbi!” And that’s how it all happened. I was in business. [For more on how Kirtan Rabbi came to be, please see this video.]

Part of striking out as an independent – if you will, entrepreneurial Rabbi entails taking care of business. As Plato says in his Republic, everyone of us has two jobs: what we actually do; and then, the money making part. Nevertheless, I never imagined that I would be involved in self-promotion, advertising, and getting the buzz out. So much so that, if you had told me when I was a graduate student or rabbinical student, I would some day be consuming information from all kinds of business books treating topics such as marketing strategy, graphic design, or the ever crucial social media revolution, I would have certainly declared you crazy. But here I was – and am still – reading such books all the time… and learning a lot from them. (And, I’m avoiding the topic that I regularly stand before the self-help section of a bookstore…)

There is Torah to be learned everywhere. So I find myself fascinated by books which advise you on how to manage your time, how to create a to-do list so that your life is not spinning out of control; and then, further, how to organize these tasks into larger projects. Two books in particular have influenced my time-management practice. The first one is by David Allen, and it is called Getting Things Done. How many of you have heard of this rather famous book? The idea of what has become the “Getting things done” philosophy – or GTD – is to get all of the to-do’s weighing upon you into some kind of In-box: to put them in a place where you know that you can reliably return (the key word here is reliable {laughter}) to organize them efficiently later. This is actually more profound than it seems; GTD is almost a kind of psychological theory: as long as those things are swimming around in your head, it makes it impossible to think clearly, sleep through the night, much less clear your headspace to spend vital time with your family and friends. GTD is almost an entire outlook on work and life. When Getting Things Done was first written, before computers had become prevalent, the idea was literally to write your tasks down on slips of paper and throw them into a physical in-box on your desk to return to later. Of course, practically every piece of computer productivity software advertises how easy it is to configure it to “do” GTD.

The other book, recommended by a friend, I read more recently. This one was more about how to overcome procrastination. Written by another business consultant-guru, Brian Tracey, the book is called, Eat that Frog. {laughter} That title comes from a witty piece of advice that Mark Twain purportedly once gave. Twain suggested that you should start every morning by eating a live frog. Chances were pretty good, he said, that this would be the worst thing that happened all day, and so you could simply set about doing all of the rest of the other stuff you have to get done. Tracey learns from this that the best way to avoid procrastination is to figure out what is the “live frog” in your life: the big, imposing, intimidating task which is holding everything else out and keeping you from acting. Once identified, you should “eat that frog.” Meaning: You should set about that task first and not turn to anything else until you have completed it.

————— PAUSE ————–

There is much more to Allen and Tracey’s teachings, and I hardily recommend these books. But, for now, you get the gist of it. For, I really haven’t come here to talk to you about productivity books, or about market philosophies; I’ve come here to talk to you about Teshuvah.

What is Teshuvah? I’m sure at this season, you’ve heard a lot of answers to that question. Since the translation “repent” has fallen out of favor (and for good reason), we prefer the language of turning, or turning back, as in, turning back to God. This is fairly familiar.

A little less known perhaps is that there are different kinds of Teshuvah… or various times for Teshuvah, each of which, according to Hassidut, corresponding to a different level of the soul.

There is a famous recommendation of our ancient sages, the rabbis of old, that we should make Teshuvah on the day before we die. Of course, what’s the catch here? Right! None of us knows on which day we will die; therefore, we should make Teshuvah kol yom va-yom, each and every day. This is the first level, the Teshuvah we make every day. Traditionally, the practice is to reflect, just before going to sleep, on the day just lived. This daily Teshuvah corresponds to the level of soul called nefesh, which is our vital, living, animal soul.

The next level of Teshuvah is that which is undertaken weekly. It corresponds to the soul-level of ruach (wind, air) and it is traditionally done every Thursday night (Erev Shabbat) as we clear our souls for Shabbat by reflecting on the prior 6 days.

The next level is monthly Teshuvah. We reflect upon our deeds of the whole month, on the evening before Rosh Chodesh, that is on the last day of the month. This work takes place within a higher, more refined level of soul, Neshamah, which is the very life-soul which God breathed into the first human in creation.

Finally, there is the yearly Teshuvah, the accounting we take on every year. The two levels of soul here, each correspond to one of the holidays: Chayyah to Rosh Hashanah (today), and Yechidah (unity) to Yom Kippur. Each of these soul levels are closest to God, are virtually the Divine Soul, especially in the case of Yechidah which means “unity.” This is the really big, heavy Teshuvah; and this is the process which we are now smack in the middle of. It is a time of cheshbon ha-nefesh, of taking account of our souls in a global fashion – right into the most divine recesses of our hearts. Just as we ready ourselves for Shabbat on the sixth day, so too have we just readied ourselves for the High Holy Days over the sixth month of Elul. And, because of the hugeness of the task, we have taken a whole month to do so.

————— PAUSE ————–

I add this, because this year, I certainly paid more attention to the work of Elul than I have in any prior year. I did so, because I co-led an Elul Meditation retreat and I wanted to be ready. In the course of my preparations for teaching at the retreat, I came across a remarkable letter by Rav Elya Weintraub, may his memory be for a blessing, a letter which formed the basis for my teaching at the retreat. The letter bore the title: “The Practical Attitude to the Work of the Days of Elul” (הגישה המעשית לעבודה ימי האלול). Now, even though the letter talks about Elul, it is still very much relevant to these days, to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – indeed! to the entire year, or any times in our lives when we seek practical help in improving ourselves.

Rav Weintraub’s starts by describing two attitudes to the Ten Days which we are now in (please forgive my rough translation of the letter):

There are two emotional attitudes [גישות בנפשות] with regard to these days. There are those who are joyful and happy in anticipation [לקראת] of the Days of Awe, and there are those for whom they are a burden. And for those for whom they are a burden, they tend toward a (kind of) arbitrariness of the heart; their conscience burdens them, they feel like they enter  prison house, that they are not able to achieve what they set out to do.

And there are others who are happy that these days have arrived, seeing them as a kind of earthly Garden of Eden, making it possible to get out of the mud and enter into a bath, so that they not only wash away the slime, but that the waters flow and allow them to exit with a beautiful fragrance… this is gewalt!

Our interest here – and most of R’ Weintraub’s – will not be on those who feel happy about these days. But, rather, on the many of us who approach this time, and its demand for making Teshuvah, with trepidation in our hearts. What makes us hesitate? What makes us feel cowed and burdened? Or, even worse, what causes some of us even to belittle the whole process, and not take the work of this time seriously? What makes us say something like: “Yeah, this ‘Days of Repentance’ thing is quaint, but none of us really do it, do we…? I mean, how many times have we tried before and failed?!”

Rav Weintraub addresses this attitude head-on. He writes that nothing stands more in the way of true personal change and self-betterment than the making of excuses such as these. Instead, we need to learn to see every New Year, every Rosh Hashanah – indeed, I would add, every day, week, month, moment – as a new opportunity. Even if you have lived through 40 Rosh Hashanahs, he enjoins, and have not succeeded, there is with each Rosh Hashanah power and (divine) assistance for a new choice (×›×— וסייעתא לבחירה חדשה); there is the power for renewed choice!

Rav Weintraub suggests that the key to finding a solution to our dilemma may be found in an old Elul practice, that of gathering kabbalos. Kabbalos are little slips of paper upon which traditional Jews write the things they hope to accomplish over the Days of Awe as well as in the coming year. In short, they are something like New Year’s resolutions written down and stored as reminders. (I’m not sure why the are called kabbalos. The word shares the same root as that for “Kabbalah,” which can also mean “receipt” in modern Hebrew. I suspect it really is best understood from the phrase, hareini m’kabel alai, behold, I take upon myself…, meaning I commit to do something.)

It’s not that the Rav finds anything remarkable about the practice of making resolutions, of writing our intentions down on little slips of paper. What he finds remarkable is what you discover when you examine the content of the kabbalos of many of the great saints and teachers, which people found stashed away their drawers after they had passed away. They are not what one might expect: These resolutions, these commitments of the great Tzadiks turned out all to be about very, very small things, about small, incremental changes – not about global declarations to change ones ways or personality wholesale. Instead of finding the kind of sweeping declaration we might expect such as, “This year, I shall no longer participate in lesion ha-ra (gossip),” we instead find things like, “This upcoming year, I will put everything into focussing on the fourth benediction of the standing prayer.” [Sure, the saint is saying, I will pray the entire 18 blessings; but when I come to that fourth one, I’m going to make sure I focus all the harder. And during the course of the year, I’m going to turn that blessing over and over, inside and out, to see how it might change my life.] Or, to come back to my own example of gossip: Instead of proclaiming that I will not gossip any more this year, it might serve better to find just one of the repeated circumstances in which I gossip, and just try to eliminate that one enticement to speak in an unseemly fashion.

The idea here, to put it in our own language, is to make a small opening, to [punch a hole] in your ego, in what is fixed in your life; some relatively little gesture which can lead to bigger change. As the Rav puts it:

כל אחד צריך למצוא לעצמו הנקודה שיכולה לשנות אותו

Each person has to find for him- or herself a point which is able to change her


ועיקר הדרך להשתנות שינוי הוא למצוא נקודה שתשנה ותכניס אותו לרקע אחר

And the essential principle of the way to make a change is to find a point that changes one and causes you to enter into an (entirely) different “background.”

The torah here, the teaching, is that, when it comes to Teshuvah, it’s the little things that count! We each need to find that “essential point” (נקודה) and change it. From this little change, things can spin out to create an entirely new “background” (reka): you can create a new quantum field of your own life from the smallest shift. The Rav goes on to bring a beautiful, embracing Midrash:

The Holy One Blessed be God, says… : Make an opening for me the size of a point of a needle, and I will open for you an opening that even a wagons and chariots can enter.

Rav Weintraub says we learn from this that “the assistance we receive,” when we do not grow cynical but just try, “is out of proportion [to our efforts], and whoever merits to make an opening of a needle, according to these words of our sages, this is the very essential ‘key.’”

In Pesikta Rabbati, there is a parable of a prince who was far away from his father – 100 days’ journey away. His father the King sent messengers to encourage him to return home. But the prince replied, “I cannot: I do not have the strength.” So the messengers returned to the King, informing him of the Prince’s response. The father sent the messengers out again, and this time they said to him, “Come back as far as you can according to your strength, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.” So it is with our God, who says to Israel, “Return to Me, and I will return to you.” (Mal. 3:7)

————— PAUSE ————–

Up to now what we have been talking about is rather abstract and inward: It has had to do with self-examination and change of oneself. With getting oneself right with God, or, since, I’m in Marin County, I suppose I could say, “getting oneself into energetic coherence,” or “becoming one.” {laughter} In other words, up to now we have pretty much limited ourselves to matters which are bein adam la-makom, which are between each of us and our maker; things which are more internal.

But how does this small-bore approach work when we are dealing with other people? What about that matters which are bein adam l’chaveiro, between one person and another? How does that work?

I would suggest – and here I extrapolate from Rav Weintraub’s letter – that the same principle holds. When you wish to make amends with those in your life whom you may have wronged, take baby steps. Find the small things. Again, discover the nekudah, the one point which contains the whole, and start there.

Men, I am told, often have difficulty doing this: seeing the whole in the small, in the finite. I remember I once had a woman friend of mine, – and, it’s important to add, not a girlfriend – who gave me some sage advice. She said, “If you ever think of giving someone flowers, don’t hesitate. Do it!” In other words, don’t second guess yourself or start to work over the idea. You see, many of us, myself included, will have the idea to take a flower to someone and then we will backpedal, saying: “How can I give her a flower? What’s a flower? A little flower can not come even close to expressing the enormity of the love which I feel. Besides, tomorrow, it will be withered and and gone; all faded away. It would almost be an insult to give a flower under these circumstances!”

Of course, based upon what we have learned, this is precisely the wrong way to think. If we would like to be kind to ourselves, if we would like not to beat ourselves up, if we do want to express an enormous love, we may have to start with something as small as a flower. We must not let the enormity of the task keep us from starting. Maybe thinking of live frogs himself, Rabbi Tarfon used to say – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.

So, when it comes to approaching others, the point here is to find the people whom you have wronged, and just say something.

These ten days have enormous power. Indeed, every deed which you accomplish during this period, it is reckoned as if you have done it for a whole year. So, as I said last year from this same pulpit, there is no time now to “process” everything or to reach some quasi-mythical “closure.” But there is time to say a small thing and get out of the way.

You have been estranged from your sister for three years, and you keep meaning to call her. But there is so much you have to say, so much water has flowed under that bridge, so you just don’t call at all: Because there is so much, you can’t even offer a flower. What good is this?! You’re not going to reach out, because it feels to huge?? Just call her and say hello, and let that suffice. Don’t say, I’ve been meaning to call you and I’m so sorry. Don’t say, “wow, do we have a lot to talk about…” Just call and say hello!

Teshuvah is not about some enormous task akin to eating a huge, living frog. Don’t listen to someone – or that excuse-making voice within yourself – which claims that Teshuvah is about changing your whole life; that to do it, you have to go out and sacrifice everything; even to the point of taking your beloved son, who symbolized the promise, the promise of change to the top of a mountain and offer him up. (Granted, this would probably be the worst thing you do all day… {laughter}) Don’t listen to this voice! Concentrate on the baby steps, on the little things, on that which is completely do-able.

For what we are talking about here is a different kind of GTD. A Jewish GTD. Namely: Getting Teshuvah Done. What you have to do is break the huge project of changing everything and making the whole thing “right,” into discreet do-able tasks which you can tackle one at a time. We do not seek enormous, global changes on these days. If we bind ourselves up in the impossible, then God will never provide that little ram which is appropriate to the occasion. By trying to go too far, we will find that we won’t go at all.

To give Rabbi Weintraub the final word:

And of course, all of the days which are between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all called Rosh Hashanah. And therefore the (Vilna) Gaon says that every good deed which we do during these ten days, the weight of them is as if one did this an entire year. Every chizzik (strengthening — חזוק), this is a chizzik of the year. This is not simple: one has to hear and bring this to “action” (ma-aseh). The “investment” (השקעה) of these ten days, these are seeds for the entire year and, afterwards, the whole will be seen as a giant tree, whether for the good or — heaven forfend — for the bad. And owing to this, there is hope to [effect a] change from one end (of our lives) to the other. We are not able to say this; but if the Vilna Gaon says it, surely this is a clear as the sun.

Shanah tovah u-gmar chatimah tovah.