Rabbi Lisa S. Greene's Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon


“You’ve got to be moving to turn!”

My sailing instructor called out again: “You’ve got to be moving to turn!” I didn’t hear it at first, caught up as I was in trying to get the sailboat to turn. Finally, I realized what he was telling me. Get the boat moving! Of course, I then had to figure out how to do it! Always happy in the water, I took on a new aquatic challenge when I moved to Chicago 19 years ago. I signed up for sailing and then windsurfing classes at the Northwestern’s Sailing Center. I was terrible at sailing and almost as bad at windsurfing and it was frustrating to learn something utterly not intuitive to me. But, this summer I returned to the sailing center --- for the first time in over a decade – and I returned to windsurfing.

Learning to windsurf challenges me, pushing me out of my comfort zone. It takes every ounce of my concentration, and is, frankly, exhausting. Still, I keep at it, and, as is an occupational hazard for rabbis, I’ve spent some time reflecting on learning to windsurf. In doing so, I realize I’ve learned a few things beyond windsurfing itself. I’ve learned a few things about myself along the way. For one, it is good to fall in the water. In other words, it is good to make mistakes, to not be good at something. My biggest takeaway is the statement that resonates far beyond windsurfing or sailing, and into the realm of real life: You’ve got to be moving to turn. Yes, you’ve got to be moving to turn.

Think about it. You can turn the steering wheel of your car or the handlebars of your bicycle in an attempt to go one way or another, but if you are not driving or pedaling, you won’t actually change direction.

The same is true at the meta-level of our lives: we can talk and dream and plan changes we would like to make, but in order to change course, to turn, we must actually begin moving. Indeed, we’ve got to be moving to turn. In sailing, the sailor must work with the realities of the wind and move the sails in order to move the boat and travel in the desired direction. Without wind, we get stuck in stasis, unmoving with our sails flapping, in a status called irons.

One could argue that most of the time we live our lives in day-to-day rhythms that don’t change so much --- that are tantamount to a sailor being stuck in irons. Flapping sails on a boat are like the challenges and restlessness we talk or complain about but don’t do anything to overcome. If we desire progress in our lives, we have to do the equivalent of deliberately moving our sails to start moving.

Here we are on Rosh Hashanah, at the start of the new year. The Hebrew word shanah or year links us to the Hebrew word meaning change, also shanah. Implicit in the beginning of the new year is the possibility for change, for turning. Of course, actually making that change may be easier said than done.

Our tradition abounds with examples of people making moving to turn. Think about well- known journeys in Torah. Abraham is told: Lech l’cha – go! Jacob, too, journeys from home. Moses is out in the wilderness herding the flock, and, later leaves the people and ascends Mt. Sinai. And our ancestors of course leave Egypt for the Promised Land. All of those journeys result from deliberate choices to move out of comfort zones into the unknown. And all result in learning from the experience. That learning could not have happened if the people stayed where they were. Indeed, they had to be moving to turn – that is, to change.

Our journeys are likely less dramatic than those involving God’s call or the sea splitting. But, we too, have the potential to journey into learning – to move into change. Indeed, one way to break the unchanging rhythms of our lives and get moving -- is to learn something new.

An example… Columbia University journalism professor and former NYTimes Editor Ari Goldman took up the cello as he approached 60, and then wrote about it in a recently published book, The Late Starters Orchestra. Goldman, an accomplished professional, talks about his cello journey with vivid honesty. Describing his first-time outing to an orchestra rehearsal, carrying a cello on his back in the NY City subway, he says: “In truth, the cello on my back was the least of my worries. I was en route to what I feared would be a mortifying experience…Humiliation was assured. I was destined to play out of tune, out of time, out of rhythm…Why was I even going?”(i)

I identified with Goldman’s quest. And realized that he is not unlike the adult bar/bat mitzvah student who starts learning Hebrew; the born Christian who begins practicing Judaism; the doctor who begins to paint or throw pottery; the father who teaches himself to cook or bake; or the retired grandparent who volunteers in a Kindergarten classroom. Recently I asked this question via social media “Who has taken on learning something new as an adult -- something that has taken you out of your comfort zone & proven fulfilling? What did you do?”

The responses included the MBA who took a poetry class; the real estate professional who is pursuing a PhD in Jewish history; the rabbi who overcame a fear of heights to run the ropes course at camp; and others who pursued memoir writing, comedy writing, golf, knitting, violin, sculpture and swimming.

Each of us, of course has our own comfort zone, and thus each of us has our own discomfort zone. Similarly, each of us has our own learning strengths and weaknesses. What is easy for you to learn, may be tough for me to learn, and what is tough for you may be easy for me. So, our choices will be different. Whatever our choices, journeys of new learning are often discomfiting, and can cause us to feel disheartened or foolish, causing us to ask as Ari Goldman did, why am I even doing this?!

Indeed it is countercultural to be a beginner in our society, a society that values achievement and degrees. Organizational change expert Peter Vaill explains in his book Learning as a Way of Being, “Consider the situation…in our present culture. A learner is by definition a relative beginner; yet it is not a good thing to be a beginner in this culture… Ours is a culture of…accomplishments. Merit badges abound in many forms, not just on the sleeves of Boy Scouts. To be called an amateur is unfortunately not a compliment…(ii)

“When you undertake a learning process of any kind in our present culture, the object is to move from [being a beginner] to [being an accomplished performer], no matter what the activity is.” We use the words “competence” or “mastery” “[to refer to] getting out of the state of being a beginner.”(iii)

Think about it. We worry about looking silly, making mistakes, being ordinary, or, yes, failing. Concerns about being a beginner can make us stuck, placing us in life’s equivalent of sailing irons – not moving. Our society messages goal-driven learning, efficient learning, more, more and more learning. Such societal expectations serve us well, but sometimes we need to let go of them. Vaill offers
a compelling counter-argument for us to take seriously: “We do not need competency skills for this life. We need incompetency skills, the skills of being effective beginners.”(iv)

Incompetency skills. In other words, we are well served to NOT succeed at things. A countercultural idea: Don’t try to be the best at everything. Let yourself not be good at things.

This notion of incompetence is a compelling one right now, on Rosh Hashanah. We’re at a transition point as we begin the new year. Transition times are full of promise and vulnerability. The potential for change is before us, but change, or forward movement, in life, just like in sailing, is not automatic.

When we engage in real introspection to reflect on the year ending, we embrace the promise and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Learning something new and allowing ourselves to be incompetent puts us in vulnerable situations. Learning something new means our imperfections and mistakes are out there for all to see.

Advocates of vulnerability speak to its overwhelming benefits. When we “dare greatly”v as one popular author describes, we take the risks that make us vulnerable and show our weakness to the world. In taking those risks, we deny the cultural messaging that says “never enough” – we are never good enough or perfect enough(vi). And, instead, we embrace weakness, mistakes, and discomfort, allowing us to learn, grow & take better care of ourselves.(vii)

One of my mentors(viii) describes vulnerability as entering a new conversation in the middle – and you have no idea what’s going on. One might describe this as daring greatly or taking a risk, though, if we are truly honest with ourselves, unless we are, say, skydiving, new learning is really not a risky proposition. Think about it. What is the worst thing that could happen?

In our heart of hearts, we all know that we can learn from mistakes. Yet, still we try to avoid them. One mistake expert, a Wharton professor who researches mistakes, reminds us that “few of us like to make mistakes” because ”they are a vivid – and often painful – reminder of our limitations...”(ix)

In the end, though, “…the problem is not that [we] make too many mistakes but too few.” Too few? Indeed. We don’t take risks; consequently we don’t make mistakes. “Ask a few elderly people you know about their areas of greatest regret, and most will recount errors of omission rather than commission – what they failed to do rather than what they did [and did wrong].”(x)

At this juncture, at the start of the new year, we have an opportunity. Usually we look simply at our mistakes. But, this year, rather than simply asking ourselves the usual questions of the season – What did I do wrong? What could I do better? -- we can ask ourselves different questions. The new year prompts us to move. In evaluating the past year, we can look to our movement and our change. We can ask ourselves:
• Was I moving?
• What new turns did I make?
• What turns did I want to make but did not, instead staying stuck, unmoving?

From there we can consider how we want to move forward:
• What turns do I want to make in the new year?
• How can I move or make myself unstuck to make those turns?
• What learning do I want to take on to begin moving?

In order to learn, though, we have to let down our guard and accept “okay” versus great. We need to listen to the advice that points to the blessing of a B-(xi) or a C- versus an A. We need to let go of the pressure to achieve and be the best. And we must dare to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations; our best learning often comes from the worst discomfort. All of this is tantamount to directing our sails to catch the wind and begin moving.

When we move our sails and direct our course on a new journey of learning, things happen. We become vulnerable. We make mistakes. We might just show ourselves to the world as incompetent. Yet, at the same time, we gain humility and empathy, maybe even a bit more patience for the learning curves of others.

And, you know what else? We might just find satisfaction and joy in learning something new. Perhaps we meet new people, and create new community. We find strength & confidence, as we gain new skills and knowledge. We engage our creativity by learning outside of our comfort or knowledge zone. And, wait, we can gain insight, knowledge and skills, too!

When that sailing instructor told me I’ve got to be moving to turn, I had the double challenge of figuring out how to get the boat moving, AND then remembering how to make the turn. Indeed we don’t have to be sailing to have that twofold challenge before us. We just have to be living our lives.

We have to start, somewhere, anywhere, before we can take a new direction. So at this start of the new year, think about what you want to learn or know. Think about what is not easy for you to learn or do. It might be an intellectual or spiritual pursuit. An artistic or charitable goal. An athletic or musical aim. Or…Small is fine, even good. Maybe it’s signing up for a class. Ask a friend to teach you. Have spouse, child or grandchild partner with you on something you’ve always wanted to learn. Open a book. Start a conversation. Begin to write. Plan a trip. Whatever it is, remember that once you’ve considered how to get moving, you’ve just got to start moving. Because, ultimately, it’s about that one simple piece of advice, for sailing or life: You’ve got to be moving to turn.

Shanah tovah.

(i) The Late Starters Orchestra, Ari Goldman.
(ii) Learning As a Way of Being, Peter Vaill.
(iii) Learning As a Way of Being, Peter Vaill.
(iv) Learning As a Way of Being, p. 81, Peter Vaill.
(v) Daring Greatly, Brene Brown.
(vi) Daring Greatly, p. 25, Brene Brown.
(vii) Daring Greatly, p. 40, Brene Brown.
(viii) Rabbi Larry Hoffman, on his entry into interfaith liturgical academic work.
(ix) Brilliant Mistakes, Paul Schoemaker.
(x) Brilliant Mistakes, Paul Schoemaker.
(xi) The Blessing of a B-, Wendy Mogel.