- Rabbi Shapiro
Yom Kippur 5783
October 5, 2022
Rabbi M. Beaumont Shapiro
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles
Eleven years ago, I was ordained as a rabbi on this bimah. My classmates and I entered through those doors, walked down that aisle, and sat in these first few rows right here. I vividly remember turning to my best friend Heath and commenting on how uncomfortable the pews were and how little legroom I had; saying something like, “I never realized what it feels like to sit out here!” It sort of felt like a middle seat in the last row of coach on a long haul flight—a pleasure few look forward to because, while it may be worse for some of us than others—it's certainly not a comfortable experience—and we do love to be comfortable, don't we?
Consider modern day travel. Everything is geared to give us more comfort—for a price. Uber XL gets us there in style. Pre-check and Clear all but eliminate waiting in line. The airline lounge gives us some peace and quiet from the terminal, a quick snack and cup of coffee before boarding. Then there's Main Cabin Extra, Premium Economy, Comfort Class, Premium Class, Business Class, First Class, Flagship Suites, all with more room, more amenities, more comfort.
We live in a society that prioritizes comfort. A thousand thread-count sheets stretched over a plush mattress with down pillows. Air conditioning when it's too hot, heat when it's too cold. Advil at the ready, for the first hint of any pain.
And it's not just our physical comfort that we prioritize; it's our emotional comfort as well. We avoid uncomfortable conversations and social situations; we steer clear of anything that makes us anxious or fearful and, if we can't avoid it, we pop a pill, take a puff, down a shot — anything to make us feel a little less uncomfortable.
It's understandable. Who wants discomfort? Who wouldn’t want to minimize it? It's human nature to seek comfort. I'm pretty sure the apes from which we evolved found ways to make themselves more comfortable hundreds of millions of years ago too. We all gravitate toward comfort—seeking to spend as much of our time as possible living in our comfort zones.
We become satisfied with where we are and what we're doing. We don’t look to alter the landscape. We prioritize the safety and security we associate with being comfortable, and then we work so hard to avoid disrupting it. All of which can lead to self-absorption, boredom, and discontent. Many of us are so comfortable, we're miserable.
What's interesting in your comfort zone? Let’s be honest: Nothing. Nothing lifechanging, nothing we're truly proud of, nothing worthy, comes from our comfort zone.
Avoiding uncomfortable situations, feelings, conversations, experiences, holds us back.
It stops us, it prevents us from changing, from growing, from achieving. We can either be comfortable and stagnate, or stretch ourselves, move beyond our comfort zone and grow.
Counterintuitive as it might seem, discomfort really is a catalyst for growth. Whenever we're pushing ourselves to improve, whether professionally or personally, we go through discomfort. It’s the only path toward real change, real growth, real progress.
Yom Kippur is meant to make us uncomfortable. Facing ourselves, our true selves, and recognizing our shortcomings and opportunities for change is hard—it's uncomfortable. Being honest, with others, and with ourselves is uncomfortable. And for all of us fasting, being hungry is uncomfortable.
One of the prohibitions that traditional Jews observe on Yom Kippur is to refrain from wearing leather soled shoes. That's why you may see some folks strolling around the Temple today in canvas shoes. The irony is that the prohibition against wearing leather shoes originated in a time in which wearing shoes of any kind was seen as a luxury, something that made one's feet more comfortable. So as one of my rabbi friends remarked to me a few years ago, "I should really be wearing my most uncomfortable five-inch stilettos on the bimah, not sneakers.”
The rabbis knew that stripping away the comforts of our everyday lives—returning us to our most basic, uncomfortable and unvarnished selves creates the possibility for change.
Frightening as it may seem on Yom Kippur, we're meant to contemplate our own mortality; to face our own death and to rehearse for it. We began last night with an open, empty ark. The Hebrew word for ark is aron—the same Hebrew word we use for casket. We begin Yom Kippur by staring into our empty casket. This white robe is a Protestantized version of a kittle, the white garment that traditional Jews are buried in when they die. We fast because the dead neither eat nor drink.
But the truth is, that's not the most uncomfortable part. Yom Kippur as a rehearsal for our death is all metaphor, and that metaphor, as uncomfortable as it may be, is about pushing us to do the even more uncomfortable work of Yom Kippur—teshuvah—repentance and reconciliation, making amends and working to repair what's broken in our relationships, in our families, in our lives.
It's uncomfortable to visit when we have stayed away for so long and don't know what to say.
It's uncomfortable to call the sibling or parent with whom we have not spoken in far too long because of conflict and strife, and make amends.
It's uncomfortable to look into the eyes of someone we have hurt and utter the words,
"I'm sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
But uncomfortable as it may be, that is what the work today is all about. Uncomfortable work is the only way we can create a different future for ourselves and those we love.
Yom Kippur comes along to shake us from our complacent comfort so that we will change and live—truly live. That's why the Torah portion we just chanted implores us to “choose life.”
“In December 2015, I attended a conference,” writes Francesca Montillo, now an acclaimed Italian-American cookbook author. “Five well-established and successful women were on the panel. The topic for their hour-long session was #Bouncing Back after Setbacks. As I sat there listening to their many personal and professional blunders, I remember feeling lucky that I hadn’t made that many mistakes in my own life.” Francesca recalls.
“Then, as if someone whispered in my ear, I heard the words: #Don't be so proud of yourself. You haven't made any mistakes because you haven't chosen to truly live. Look how comfortable and boring your life is.' Whose voice was this, and with what audacity did it speak to me like that?”
The voice was her own and it shook her. It started her thinking of mistakes she made in her life, and that led to the realization that she had followed a simple, comfortable path for 38 years, never stretching herself, never taking a chance. “I lacked zest for life,” she admitted, and so she turned to teaching cooking.
As the first class approached, she got anxious and uncomfortable. Imposture syndrome set in. But she soldiered on, and with growing confidence, built a website and created a business: She would take clients on a culinary tour of Italy. The first trip is this fall.
"I'm sure I will be nervous and anxious,” she said. “However, I have faith in my ability to figure things out. I am no longer comfortable, sitting complacently on the sidelines of my own life. I'm finally looking forward to waking up every morning.”
Today the Torah speaks to us across the generations, begging us not to simply sit in comfort on the sidelines of our own lives but to choose to live—to really live.
Today, the challenge confronts us head on: Here we sit, a little cramped, a little hungry, forced to face ourselves and ask the hard questions.
What has your comfort led you to be complacent about? Are you willing, in this new year, to push back hard enough to make a difference?
Yom Kippur comes to shake us from our complacent comfort, motivate us, and fill our heads with lofty intentions and aspirations. But in a few short hours, the shofar will sound, we’ll break our fast, and return to the comfort of our daily lives, but now with a question: Is that enough?
In this new year, let's push ourselves beyond what's comfortable. Let’s ask ourselves the hard questions. Let’s find new paths to a new kind of comfort—comfort without complacency. A new us, for a new year. That is progress. That is growth. That is change. That is choosing life.